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BWW Review: M.A.D. Theatre of Tampa's Edgy CABARET Is More Pertinent Now Than Ever


"Is it a crime to fall in love? Can we ever tell where the heart truly leads us?
All we are asking is eine bisschen Verstandnis...Why can't the world leben und leben lassen? Live and let live..." --from "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes," sung by the Emcee to a Gorilla in CABARET

Theatre has been a savior to so many of us this past horrific week. Whether to entertain with mere escapism or to hold a mirror up to the problems at hand where escape is impossible, the stage carries an utmost importance in Florida right now. Which brings me to M.A.D. Theatre of Tampa's presentation of CABARET at the Shimberg Playhouse.

CABARET, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, turns fifty this year, and it's certainly one of the darkest musicals of all time. Set primarily in the seedy Kit Kat Club, the action takes place during the fading days of the Weimar Republic in early 1930's Germany where decadence gives way to fascism, where the party-hardy days turn dark as the Nazis take over. It celebrates the freedom and diversity of Berlin, all of it crashing to the ground before our eyes.

Fast forward to 2016. This year with the ugliest of presidential elections where various groups have been demonized and an authoritarian figure strives to take over the White House, and this week after the LGBT community faced the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a nightclub, I realized that CABARET, a show I have seen several times and have even directed years ago, has transformed itself before my eyes. Watching it less than a week after the horrors in Orlando, it was as if the problems of the 1930's had jumped off the stage and had entered our present day. CABARET all of a sudden became a depressing mirror of our current reality. It was always chilling, but now it has become bone-chillingly, horrifyingly real. What has always been a great musical, one of the very best, has now become an emotionally devastating experience.

A devilish Emcee welcomes us to the Kit Kat Club as the show opens. The Emcee, made famous in the 1960's by Joel Grey and in the 1990's by Alan Cumming, is a mercurial figure, frightening and entertaining. And in this production, Aaron Castle is a wicked delight, making this iconic role his own. It takes us a moment to warm up to him. He's almost serpent-like as he roams this club in Hades, his lithe hands rubbing all over his cast of unclad loose women, drag queens and gay and bisexual men. And as the story sadly moves forward into the horrors of Nazi Germany, he transforms as well. It's a breathtaking turn, as it must be. If the Emcee doesn't work, you have no show. Gladly, he shines here in all of his delicious awfulness, a slithering, reptilian reflection of the times.

All of Castle's songs work well, but sometimes the band overwhelmed his vocals and we couldn't always decipher several of his lyrics, especially early on. But his rendition of my favorite song in the show, "I Don't Care Much," is divine, where he squeezes eyeliner that drips down his face like streams of black blood; he resembles Oedipus who ripped out his own eyes. It's terrifying, and yet we can't look away. And the ending that focuses on a lit cigarette hits just the right note, thanks to how well Castle plays it. I have seen so many interpretations of the CABARET ending, but this one ranks as one of the more effective ones. We leave the theatre in hushed silence, dazed, where we can't shake Castle's gleefully evil guide into mankind's underbelly.

As the Kit Kat Club star, British Sally Bowles, Lauren Buglioli is nothing short of a revelation. The character doesn't understand the irony when she tells her lover, Cliff Bradshaw, that he's too innocent. She doesn't realize that she's the innocent one, clueless. When she states that politics has no effect on them, we know how wrong she is (we see how politics affects all of us in our everyday lives). But she doesn't get it, or at least doesn't want to. And Buglioli plays all of this perfectly. It's a gloriously rendered part, full of depth and passion, and yet she's also appropriately annoying, selfish, and oddly optimistic (to hide her underlying despair). It's a star turn, and Buglioli introduces herself into our theatre community with a bang. She performs her songs on the highest of octane, nailing the notes, and she never lets up. Her performance kept me sitting up straight, leaning forward toward the stage; we surrendered to her sad, sad world.

My only qualm with Buglioli comes when she breaks the fourth wall after bravely drinking her egg/Worcestershire sauce concoction (a Prairie Oyster). It's a great feat, but then Buglioli acknowledges the audience to react rather than letting it come naturally. Even though the production is presentational, this breaks the moment where she is connecting with Cliff. If this occurred in the Kit Kat Club, it would be more than fine; but she gestures the audience in Cliff's place, and it momentarily took me out of that setting and away from the potential relationship happening onstage.

But Buglioli nails the title tune, one of the most famous songs in theatre history. In it, she seems lost as her fellow cast members, who start the song with feathered fans, all turn into zombie-like drones who leave the stage one by one. It's a creepy effect, creatively showing how Nazism infiltrated the world. Sally ends the song alone, helpless, as she defiantly faces her doomed future--she gives up on hope and will live the rest of her life in this seedy bar, with no prospects of a better life. It's crushing as we watch it, but Buglioli performs it beautifully. I have seen the title number performed numerous times, but never quite like this.

As Cliff, Eric Lamont Newman has his moments and has a great singing voice (too bad Cliff doesn't get to show it off very much). Newman was outstanding in last fall's Next to Normal, but he is way too young to play Cliff, the novelist based on Christopher Isherwood who is looking for a subject to write about. His acting is suitable enough, but at times he seemed more like a high school student abroad than a globetrotting writer looking for love in all the wrong places.

Miranda Harrison-Quillin as Fraulein Schneider is also way too young for the part and doesn't even try to utilize make-up to appear older. (She does sport a wig, but she unfortunately looks like a twenty-something donning an obvious wig.) Harrison-Quillin has a marvelous singing voice, and her versions of "So What?" and "What Would You Do?" induce goose bumps. But in her performance we never get a true sense of an older woman, a world-weary soul who is torn by the pain of indecisiveness. This is necessary in her connection with Herr Schultz, the Jew who she will love and leave, brilliantly and heartbreakingly played by Donald B. Holt, Jr. Holt is so real and so heartfelt that he makes the duets with Harrison-Quillin work. We root for them, and our hearts sink when real life gets in the way of their lovely, albeit doomed romance.

As the prostitute, Fraulein Kost, Dionne Christian is wonderfully sordid and quite funny; she encapsulates the corroded decadence of Berlin in the early 1930's. Jay Morgan is likable as Herr Ludwig, which is precisely the point when he shows his true colors at a party late in Act 1. James Wyatt Babington is splendid as one of the Kit Kat Club boy toys, Hans, and Zach "Hippie" Griswold is quite strong in a myriad of roles. The entire ensemble shines in the darkened steamy atmosphere of the Cabaret: Pablo Alameda, Abraham Bell (who also imaginatively choreographed), Kidany Camilio (always in character), Dwayne A. Cline (who must be seen to be believed), Erin Coalson, Mika McGee Kleinschmidt, Kevin Lara, Iris Moon, Kandyce Walker and Christopher "Topher" Warren.

The show is strongly directed by Clareann Despain, who guides the cast of nineteen well. I wish she would have ended Act 1 more effectively, perhaps doing something with the creepy Emcee, but most of her work is supremely creative here. Dwayne A. Cline's minimal set, featuring art noveau advertisements, works well enough, and Anthony Vito's lighting is effective. Meli Mossey's costumes are quite clever, from one Kit Kat performer appearing as both male and female depending on which direction the character turns, and the Emcee's cage skirt--making him look like a walking S & M device. So glad to see the band onstage (CABARET doesn't work any other way), and it's a tight outfit, led by musical director Peter A. Belk. I wish the people responsible for the program would have put the names of the band members in it so that this talented group could rightfully get their proper accolades.

Music director Belk even gets his moment in the spotlight, singing the anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" a cappella. I have one gripe with this: During the song, Belk sports a Nazi armband. Although this gives the song power, it takes away the moment at the end of Act 1 when one of the beloved characters takes off his coat and is wearing a swastika on his arm. The key to CABARET is that Act 1 is all party with an undercurrent of the problems to come, but they should not be overt. When Belk wears his armband halfway through the act, we are confronted with the Nazi menace long before we should be. Yes, we know Nazism is in the air, but it should be a moment that makes us take a startled breath when we first see the armband at the party, and this took the power of that specific instance away.

There were some microphone issues on the night I saw it, and some of the German accents came and went. The diction of several characters also seemed an issue at times. But make no mistake, the power of the show is stronger now than when it debuted in 1966. [PLEASE NOTE: This CABARET features a lot of sexual conduct and various simulated acts. It is NOT--repeat, NOT--a production for children. You probably already know that, but I thought it was necessary to state the obvious.]

Leaving the theatre of CABARET, it was like we were leaving one nightmare and entering another. The heartbreaking horror of the Orlando shooting will not be forgotten, and there's still a potentially scary election coming up. Whether we succumb to our lesser evils (or evil lessers) like they did in Germany over eighty years ago hasn't been determined yet. That fate remains in our hands. So see CABARET to put this all in perspective. It's a remarkably important show. Now more than ever.

M.A.D. Theatres production of CABARET runs at the Shimberg Playhouse in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts through June 26th.

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