BWW Review: CABARET steams up at Theatre Baton Rouge
The lines between fantasy and reality will blur on the stage of Theatre Baton Rouge as they run the now-classic musical CABARET now through March 25.
This tantalizing musical set in Berlin was written by Joe Masteroff with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb and adapted from the novel "Goodbye to Berlin" by Christopher Isherwood. Originally CABARET opened on Broadway in 1966. Since then it has been brought back with two Broadway revivals and made into a movie by Bob Fosse starring Liza Minnelli.
The story centers on young, American novelist Cliff Bradshaw, who finds himself journeying to the Kit Kat Klub, a den of delights that can put most Bourbon Street bars and clubs to shame. Here Cliff meets a cavalcade of characters, who are too absorbed in their own proclivities to notice the greater outside world is darkening around them, threatening to consume their way of life.
Under the direction of Bill Martin, the talented cast deliver a diamond in the rough of a show, flashing with wild exuberance as undertones of danger peep through. "Sound of Music" this is not. Set in the Berlin of 1929 and 1930, the Nazi Party is slowly building its power, and their looming presence is palpable throughout the musical. While CABARET may bring focus to the days of pre-Nazi Germany, its themes and imagery of rising fascism remain as frightening, troubling, and timely today as they ever have.
We know CABARET mostly for its iconic characters. The master of ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, made famous by Joel Grey, is iconic with his creepy presence. In TBR's production, Clay Donaldson takes on the Emcee's suspenders and delivers an almost omniscient character who is sure to tempt you even as he slithers about the stage to leer at you. Donaldson's Emcee dominates the show. With rouged cheeks, he giddily welcomes us to a licentious world in "Willkommen," and continues to demonstrate a world full of sex, alcohol and cold, hard cash in numbers such as "Two Ladies" and "The Money Song."
And of course, there is Sally Bowles, the Kit Kat Klub's hard-living, low-life chanteuse who'd rather die and "go like Elsie," her friend who died from "too much pills and liquor." It's quite evident in the first 15 minutes of the show that Sally is going to sing and dance herself into an early grave and to hell with what Mama, or the Nazis, or even her paramour Cliff Bradshaw may think.
Bright-eyed and energetic, Marion Bienvenu is perfectly cast in the role of Sally. Known for playing brassy roles at TBR, Bienvenu has the chops to take on the ex-patriate Bowles and delivers a powerhouse of a performance that is worthy of her talents. And it takes skill to play the modest talent of Sally as seen in "Don't Tell Mama" and "Mein Herr." Though heavily addicted to the stage and the after party, when it comes to "Maybe This Time," Bienvenu demonstrates the genuinely vulnerable side of Sally. Bienvenu's clear, beautiful voice will break hearts with the realization that Sally is cursed.
Cliff Bradshaw is a tricky read. His character comes from Isherwood's writing and, in effect, is Isherwood's hard-to-pinpoint self-insert. Dressed in a conservative fashion, Brandon Guillory sings well and does what he can with the stencil-thin part. Cliff is meant to be an observer, but even as an outsider experiencing the Kit Kat Klub and its residents, Bradshaw's presence feels more lackluster than it should. Only when interacting with Sally, or decrying the politics of the Nazis, do we see the character spring to life.
But the story of Sally Bowles and Cliff Bradshaw was just one of many in Isherwood's semi-biographical entries, and to speak of the iconic characters of CABARET without giving focus to the entirety of the cast is faulty. Assuredly, CABARET is an ensemble piece dedicated to the slices of life that Isherwood captured on paper. The other ill-fated love story, between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, a German Jewish fruit merchant, is better established and thus more moving in its outcome. Chrissy Bienvenu and Bill Corcoran give touching life to this later-in-life romance, especially during their duet "It Couldn't Please Me More." Sadly, their romance is marred by the darkening political climate. Jessica Wilson as the hooker Fräulein Kost, is beautifully loose, wrapping herself like a jellyfish around the pretty sailors she introduces as her "nephews."
With a specific focus on overt sexuality, CABARET might risk alienating more conservative audiences, but the spectacle is just marvelously entertaining throughout.
Scenic designer Kenneth Mayfield turns TBR into a lively nightclub that uses the set to keep his actors on the prowl. Look into the shadows to find the Emcee looming over a railing or the dancing girls put on showroom display. Lighting by Louis Gagliano casts streaming beams of color, so textural they could be extended pillars of steam cascading onto the stage during the musical numbers. The fluid choreography by Natalie Baily Smith showcases what these actors can do.
TBR's CABARET is a delight on musical terms alone, but the resonance of the characters and their stories set in tumultuous times makes this production not only fresh and urgent but perhaps too relatable.