BWW Review: CABARET at Ogunquit Playhouse
The essence of the musical Cabaret currently playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse can be summed up in one line spoken by a character in the second act.
"What would you do if you were me?"
This is the question that was faced by so many Germans and Jews as the Nazi regime began to invade Berlin, Germany in 1931. People were polarized between the choice to join the rising movement or to move elsewhere and declare independence from a dark cloud about to take over the country. Millions were asking themselves, "What would you do if you were me?"
In the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical, the choices are viewed through the eyes of a unique group of individuals who inhabit the environs of the Kit Kat Club, a typical cabaret of the time. Here, you'll find a myriad of lost souls thriving in a decadent den of lust and despair. While the Emcee of the club (Randy Harrison) encourages guests to leave their troubles outside, it is inevitable that the troubles will amass in the cabaret, a place of political unrest, cheap nightclub entertainment, and physical and sexual bliss where no holds are barred whatsoever.
The plot centers around Sally Bowles (Kate Shindle) a troubled singer who falls in love with a wanderlust American, Clifford Bradshaw (Billy Harrigan Tighe), a writer in search of material for his planned novel. Bowles falls hard for the staid American while Bradshaw is intrigued with this passionate woman after past flings with men.
A tender subplot is a love relationship between a German spinster, Fraulein Schneider (wonderfully portrayed by Mariette Hartley) and Herr Schultz (magnificently played by John Rubenstein), a German born Jew. Theirs is a love of two kind souls put at risk by a Nazi movement that espouses the elimination of Jews not the development of such relations between a German and a Jew.
Bradshaw meets a stern-faced Ernst Ludwig (Noah Plomgren) who warmly befriends the American, taking advantage of his innocence and need for money by having him unknowingly transporting Nazi propaganda. The main players are rounded out with Fraulein Kost (Katrina Yaukey) a German lady lusting after what seems to be a non-stop string of sexual partners.
The show plays out scenes of political upheaval and the overt discrimination of an entire ethnic group. One cannot help but make comparisons with what is happening on stage with the world seen on the nightly news in America of 2019. This message will haunt theatergoers as the Emcee begins the show with an upbeat message of leaving troubles behind and ending it with the proclamation about Nazi Germany, "the world is ending."
While the leads get the spotlight in this production, the Kit Kat Club Girls and Boys are an amazing ensemble. In addition to dancing and singing as performers in the cabaret, this crew is also the orchestra for the production. With incredible ease, a female could be doing an intricate dance number one minute and playing a violin or clarinet in the orchestra in the next. A male performer could be part of the action onstage at one point and playing a wild saxophone solo, the next. The start of Act 2 begins with a mind-blowing musical piece with all performers in the band playing at once. It is a vibrant gathering of incredible talent.
Harrison, as the Emcee, is a powerhouse of a performer. He's like a one-man Greek chorus narrating the action and moving the plot. His vocal range wonderfully carries the signature opening number, "Willkommen", the silly number, "Two Ladies", and the haunting tones of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" and "I Don't Care Much." Harrison has played the part before in a national touring production and it shows with an emotionally strong characterization.
Tighe and Shindle are a convincing pair struggling with their new relationship. Tighe is a steady performer in his role portraying a man wanting to take in everything this new environment has to offer. Unfortunately, the pace of the crumbling world is too much for him to comprehend and to manage. Shindle shines in her signature numbers, "Money", "Cabaret", and the pensive tune, "Maybe This Time." I'd encourage her to show a bit more range in her character, better portraying the highs and lows of a life in disarray.
Movie and theater veterans, Hartley and Rubenstein warm the hearts in their love story. Hartley is especially wonderful as a German woman pressured to call off her marriage to the Jewish grocer. I didn't know that Hartley was such a powerful vocalist and such an engaging actress. What a wonderful addition to the Ogunquit Playhouse stage!
Rubenstein, whose credits could fill a volume, embraces the love story match with Hartley with a loving tenderness that fills the theater. Their duet, "Married", is a showstopper.
Plomgren is the perfect Nazi, which I say as a great compliment to his performance.
The set for Cabaret uses every bit of space on the Ogunquit stage even finding its way extending into the audience area. The scene sets are simple, merely the use of a bed or chair to set the stage, but they are framed by an enormous set of platforms and stairways that give an impression of vast depth to the performing area.
Director, BT McNicholl, has taken a musical that can be tremendously engaging but very disturbing to watch to a whole new level. He's a master of portraying people in real life situations making very real-life decisions. This performance of Cabaret will be most remembered for its harsh realism, the portrayal of what is true.
For a rare experience, I would see the Ogunquit performance of Cabaret. It is not for the faint of heart and I would caution that the highly sexualized nature of the show might not be fine for everyone.
Photo credits: Gary Ng