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BWW Review: Richey Suncoast Theatre Presents Kander & Ebb's Iconic CABARET

BWW Review: Richey Suncoast Theatre Presents Kander & Ebb's Iconic CABARET

What can be said of the Richey Suncoast production of CABARET? That it's bigger than a breadbox but shorter than Les Miserables? That it captures some of the spirit of the show, the decadence of Berlin in the early 1930's, and contains some memorable performances? That it's a different take on the iconic show than you may be used to and deserves our full attention? And, misgivings aside (and there are plenty), that it's just as pertinent today than when it was first produced some 54 years ago?

In 1966, when CABARET opened on Broadway (directed by the great Hal Prince), it was like an explosion had rocked the Great White Way, a landmine that the shocked audiences kept stepping on, and it immediately shoved musical theatre into an entirely new era. With the show's seductively evil Kit Kat Club Emcee and frank talk of homosexuality and abortion, theatre goers had never experienced anything like it. Musicals were never this dark before it reared its swastika-donning head.

Based on Christopher Isherwood's semi-autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin and the play I Am a Camera, CABARET is set during the waning days of the Weimar Republic in Berlin, Germany. It showcased the allure of decadence and the authoritarian terror that would follow. Yes, Nazi's had been in musicals before, but usually they were cheery young men singing "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" with Liesl Von Trapp and about as threatening as a litter of kittens. CABARET, on the other hand, treated Nazism as a sort of hungover horror--the end of the party and the beginning of the end of the world. It's safe to say that in terms of historic musical theatre importance, it ranks up there with the groundbreaking likes of Oklahoma, West Side Story, and (later) Hamilton.

Which brings us back to the current Richey Suncoast production of CABARET, with music by John Kander (not "Kinder" as misspelled on the front of the RST program), lyrics by Fred Ebb and the book by Joe Masteroff. There is much to offer in this unusual take on the musical, but just as many questionable choices.

Michael McGuigan is unlike any Master of Ceremonies I have ever experienced. Usually the part is sort of puckishly sinister, but you must toss the past Emcee's like Joel Grey and Alan Cumming out of your mind. McGuigan makes the part his very own. He preens, primps, a Goliath seducer of both men and women. He has an incredible singing voice, and the audience responded to much of his charm. And he certainly has delicious fun in the part, especially in the opening number, "Willkommen." That said, although powerful, the first song seemed to lack the energetic punch needed of one of musical theatre's most famous openings.

At the start of Act 2, McGuigan's Emcee emerges dressed in drag, and it's hilarious--like Diana Dors meets Divine in Mondo Trasho. But his big number with the gorilla that soon follows, "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes," doesn't wallop us like it should; perhaps because the Emcee's key monologue about "ein bisschen Verständnis, a little understanding" is mysteriously missing here.

Mostly, when it comes to the Emcee, I don't get a sense of the character's arc--a reflection of Germany, from the decadent devilish host to a mirror of the evil that has infiltrated the Rhineland. Here, he seems to go from energetic to almost sleepy-druggy. The electric zap of the part is missing, and though at times entertaining, we need to feel that he is the figurative conductor of a very horrifying locomotive. But the locomotive seems to go nowhere, and the Emcee looks like he's getting more and more tired as the night wearily wears on.

Baylee Roberts makes quite a splash as the iconic Sally Bowles--the toast of Mayfair and the Kit Kat Club's headliner. Roberts is a big talent in a little body--a pixie of sorts, a Lilliputian Lolita. And she has a smashing singing voice.

Roberts' take on the title tune may not satisfy Liza Minnelli lovers who want their "Cabaret" (the song) as a show-offy belter's dream, but I appreciated her work here very much. This is more than a plea to party in Roberts' capable hands; this is an emotional tour de force. In her ripped stockings, she struggles to smile, the show biz glitz covering the awful truth--that Sally can't settle down, that she can't be ordinary. The key to the song is that it is pregnant Sally's unapologetic epiphany--she wants an abortion in order to free herself of any responsibilities. The world may be changing around her, but she's clueless to that; she just wants to sing, drink and have as many sexual encounters as she can. Roberts understands the character's deeper meaning here; that it's more than just shaking the rafters with her voice (which is the usual take with the song). She uses the number to showcase Sally's wounded devil-may-care, don't-give-a-crap philosophy. Sally would rather entertain a room filled with Nazis than live a normal life. So I'm glad Roberts doesn't try to emulate Liza here; she makes the moment her own--a simply marvelous character choice.

But Roberts comes across quite young, too young, and with an equally young Michael Cote as her love interest, the writer Cliff Bradshaw, the two of them look as though they could be in Degrassi High rather than CABARET.

Michelle Hakes is heartbreaking as Fraulein Schneider, whose doomed relationship with the Jewish Herr Schultz (Gary Grossman) is the key subplot to the show. Her emotional "What Would You Do?" is a question we would all ask if in the same shoes as she--walk away from love and play it safe, or marry a Jew and suffer the certain consequences with the emergence of the Third Reich?

Nicole Lewis is tantalizing as the prostitute, Fraulein Kost, and Jeff Schoonmaker hits just the right notes as the gregarious Nazi, Ernst Ludwig (he doesn't overdo the accent; he makes every moment specific and true). Schoonmaker's work on "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" at the end of Act 1 sent shivers down my spine.

The Kit Kat Girls are a motley lot and add much to the show. I like how they are all different shapes, sizes and ages. Some of my favorite moments of theirs are when they are posing in character, unable to escape the cabaret. And in my favorite song of the show, the Emcee's "I Don't Care Much," the Kit Kat girls and boys form a great tableau, like something out of a Grosz painting. They resemble junkies, strung out and moving in a morphine-like dream-haze. As the show goes on, they get dowdier and dowdier, more and more lost, until at the end they look like Munch-angst zombies, horror characters out of a James Ensor painting.

They are a talented lot, including Suzanne Meck, Jennifer Carr, and Hannah Mayer. Brianna Fawley as Helga stands out as one of the more lost of the Kit Kat girls. Rei Charlotte Capote (as Lulu) gets special mention for hitting quite a note in her moment as Brunhilda. And best of all, my favorite Kit Kat Girl of the show, the amazing tattoed Amanda B. Gomer is edgy and full of bad-ass attitude as a very flexible Frenchie.

The smaller parts do fine enough: Cate Gonzalez, Alyssa Vargas, Samuel Panariello, Scott Kessinger, and Frank Kubiak as Kost's sailor, Rudy.

Isaiah Haddon as Bobby and James Bailey as Victor, the Kit Kat Boys, get my vote for Best in Show. The pacing for much of the production, especially Act 1, seems off, but these two add the jolt of electricity that much of the rest of the show is lacking. Act 1 is incredibly long--an hour and forty minutes--and at times it felt much longer, like seeing the seven-hour The Inheritance in one sitting. (Act 2 is much quicker...and darker.) But Haddon's Bobby and Bailey's Victor helped energize the production when most needed. They are always in character, always upping the ante.

I'm still questioning the ending of this production, and I wonder if the talented director, Jess Glass, is questioning it as well. You get the feeling that they're working things out, trying to make sense of the final moments. But this one left me scratching my head, trying to understand what the final goal of the show is supposed to be. The cast, their faces smeared and dirty, gather around the Emcee and then quickly exit the stage, leaving the Emcee alone in a final pose. The moment lacks the terror needed, or the emotional impact, where the audience is so stunned that it doesn't know whether to clap or not. Not so here. We don't know what to feel. It just seemed odd, confusing, and ultimately underwhelming.

Melissa Smith's choreography does quite well, and her Kit Kat Girls should make her proud. The minimal set works, although I wish the orchestra had been on the stage instead of hidden in the pit. Music director Tracie Callahan gets the most out of her cast, though not all vocals were quite there. Band director Aidan Gmelin leads a very strong orchestra, even though the music--as well as the whole show--seemed to drag at times instead of galvanize.

This is the 1987 version, which adds Cliff's unnecessary "Don't Go" but sadly lacks two favorite songs--"Maybe This Time" and "Mein Herr." Also, I wish the RST program included a song list, always helpful when we want to remember the numbers during intermission or after the show.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a different take on CABARET, which I can appreciate. Sometimes the show hits too close to home to our current world, especially in a rabid political year. One of Sally's lines resonates in particular, one that always haunts me, especially when it comes to the majority of Americans who stay at home rather than vote: "It's only politics, and what's that got to do with us?" It makes me many apathetic Sally Bowles are out there ready to not vote in this heated election year?

CABARET at the RST runs through March 15th.

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