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Review: Kander & Ebb's Brilliant, Terrifically Terrifying CABARET at the Asolo Rep

A Stunning Production, Runs Thru Dec. 31!

Review: Kander & Ebb's Brilliant, Terrifically Terrifying CABARET at the Asolo Rep

Let's start with the ending: Without giving anything away, the final moment of the Asolo Rep's inventive, scalding, entertaining production of CABARET has left an indelible mark on me. I awoke this morning, and that last searing image--the moment the entire musical had ultimately led to--still shakes me. Absolutely horrifying and beautiful, audacious and stinging. Audience members audibly gasped during it. Afterwards, when the lights came up, a person nearby asked me, "Is that how CABARET usually ends?" I told them that there always seem to be twists on the ending, and that this one comes closest to the Broadway Revival but is still unlike any CABARET I have had the fortune (or misfortune, as some productions are weaker than others) to see. After that closing moment, there was stunned silence, and then the audience leapt to its feet.

John Kander and Fred Ebb's CABARET, with a book by Joe Masteroff based on Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin, opened 56 years ago this week and instantly became one of the five most important musicals of the past hundred years (the other four being Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Company and Hamilton). When it first opened, it was not unlike an explosion; it upped the American musical genre to the next level. The world of art was already changing around us. In music, The Beach Boys had released Pet Sounds, while the Beatles grew up before our eyes with Revolver and Bob Dylan changed the landscape with Blonde on Blonde. In movies, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blow Up opened the doors for a new Hollywood where nothing would soon seem taboo. And with CABARET, Broadway had finally fully matured. And since then, the show hasn't dulled its sharpness, its edge. It's a story that, pertinent in 1966, is even more pungent, more hair-raisingly relevant, these days. The original Hal Prince production contained a giant mirror that reflected the Broadway audience back onto itself; there is no mirror in this Asolo production and there doesn't need to be. It's still a scorching reflection of our current environment and mood, especially for those of us living here in Florida.

CABARET takes place in what is usually described as a "seedy" night spot, the Kit Kat Club in Berlin, Germany, during the Weimar Republic just before the Nazis took control. It focuses on a young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw, and his experiences with a Kit Kat showgirl, British Sally Bowles, and a sadly changing Germany. But we are guided by the true star of the show--a ribald devil known as the Emcee, a Master of Ceremonies who is sort of a reflection of the decadent times. He acts as our Virgil, our ballsy tour guide, as he walks us through this entertainingly hellish world. Act 1 of CABARET is a party, and Act 2 is the horrific hangover. When a major character takes off his coat and showcases a swastika on his arm (a moment that caused shaken audience members to vocally react), nothing is the same after that. The Nazis are taking over the city and the story.

The Asolo Rep's CABARET is the tightest I have ever experienced. It's a technical marvel in all aspects, and the story seems to have an extra punch or two in it. There are a couple of moments that did not work, one glaringly so, but overall this production challenges the Broadway Revival as the finest CABARET I have ever experienced (and I have seen nearly a dozen in my lifetime and yet the musical never gets old for me).

When we first walk into the theatre, we are greeted by Tijana Bjelajac's awe-inspiring set--the Kit Kat Club--that is anything but "seedy." Here, as the Emcee reminds us, "life is beautiful." It's immediately intimidating, a glitzy art deco dreamland (or nightmareland, if you will), something out of a Fritz Lang silent film. This is the most glamorous CABARET set I have encountered; it fits in perfectly with the Asolo's ornate interiors. (You would never mistake it for a roller-disco in Xanadu.) When someone refers to it as "the hottest spot in Berlin," you believe it. Hell never seemed more alluring. A jacket hovers overhead in a celestial beam of light--a light beating down on Berlin's very own Hades. You see the nightclub personnel throughout the show, hanging out in the background, to the side of the stage. The Cabaret in CABARET never leaves.

As the Emcee, Lincoln Clauss emanates charisma, a boyish handsomeness and fabulous acting, singing and dancing chops. You feel his joie de vivre in performing, and it's an electric turn, galvanizing. However, he may be too young for the part--you never sense a world-weariness in him behind the adolescent-looking trickster, which is obviously by design. He's much fun to watch, but he never really showcases the sinister side of the Emcee, the oozy decadence. The debauchery is there, but we're missing the mischevious malevolence underneath it all. Yes, we want our Luciferian tour guide to be likable and sexy, but we also must have the malicious delight, the nastiness behind the smile, seething as well. Clauss' Emcee seems much too sweet; it's obviously a different vision for the role. Case in point: My favorite song in the show, "I Don't Care Much," is gorgeously realized with the Emcee's disembodied head eventually acting as a floating balloon (it needs to be seen, miraculous staging here); but the Emcee seems somewhat lightweight in the song (literally), and it's a number about loss and surrender, and the anger underneath it all. We never feel that, partially because its ingenious staging masks the bitterness of the song (which reflects the anguish and the forced denial of that anguish occurring on the stage). The singer may claim that he "doesn't care much," but the opposite is true. The clipping of the words, the sulky angst of the character should bleed through.

But Clauss is sensational, giving a true star turn. He enters strutting backwards to a prolonged drumroll and delivers an ovation-worthy "Wilkkommen." Later, he appears as a very rambunctious baby complete with oversized bottle and baby carriage, ushering in 1931. And his work with a ventriloquist dummy in the first rendition of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is certainly memorable. He exudes such youthful exuberance, showcasing an absolute joy in performing, and we, the audience, will certainly follow him anywhere. Even if he doesn't hit the more cutthroat highs (or, rather, lows) possible in this icon--it's still an incredible, unshakeable performance.

Iris Beaumier is a Sally Bowles "the Toast of Mayfair" to be reckoned with. This isn't some great actress/struggling singer Sally that we have seen before. Ms. Beaumier is a vocal powerhouse, as showcased in "Don't Tell Mama," "Mein Herr" (atop a floating half-moon), and a particularly goosebump-inducing "Maybe Next Time." The key thing about the character Sally is that, worldly as she wants to come across, she doesn't really know herself. She keeps telling her lover, Cliff, that he's an innocent, but it is she who is naïve about what's happening around her. "Politics," she says at one point, as the Nazis are rising to power, "what does that have to do with us?" For all of her fake worldliness, she is clueless as a child.

In a list I wrote for Broadway World two years ago of the best Showtunes of the past hundred years, the song "Cabaret" ranked #1. Hearing Ms. Beaumier's version of the title song--full of pain, indecision, longing, desperation--you can easily see why it ranked in the top spot. It's not some happy tune about life in a Cabaret; it's actually a song where a woman wrestles with big decisions--should she have a child and a safe life in America, or should she get an abortion and throw it all away? It is in the song "Cabaret" where she comes to her ultimate decision. And Ms. Beaumier's vocals are beyond simply marvelous; they are out-of-this-world glorious.

Perhaps the strongest in the cast is Kelly Lester as Fraulein Schneider. She is grounded, weary, full of love and deflation at the same time. She's the ultimate survivor, even if she is broken as she seems to be in her standout song, "What Would You Do?" As her Jewish beau, Herr Schultz, Philip Hoffman is phenomenal, with wonderful vocals that harmonize well with Lester's Schneider. In some ways, Schultz has such a good heart that he doesn't see the horrors headed his way. He keeps stating that he's a German, and always will be, unaware that the Nazis don't see it that way; they see the Jews as less than human, certainly not pure German, and Schultz's future will certainly be tragic. Hoffman is genuinely likable in the part, which makes his broken relationship with a true love and his future (unseen) tragedy that much more heartbreaking.

As the American, Cliff Bradshaw, Alan Chandler is sturdy, strong, a leading man who doesn't disappear in the wallpaper (the way I have seen previous Cliff's wind up). In the end, with the wild Kit Kat Club employees surrounding him, it's a thankless role, but we need one sane soul on that stage to stand for us. Blake Price is an appealing Ernst Ludwig, Cliff's German pal with a secret, and the multi-talented Abby Church emits wicked glee as the sailor-seducing prostitute Fraulein Kost (she also does double-duty as Fritzie).

Some of the audience members sit at tables in front of the stage, and the Kit Kat Club denizens interact with them. Best at this is Michael Seltzer as Bobby, who even flirts with the patrons as he slowly skulks across the floor. There is a slinky malevolence to Seltzer's Bobby when he confronts Cliff, and he's wonderful in all of his numbers (particularly as a Pippi Longstocking-haired gal in "Two Ladies"). The other Kit Kat Club souls are energetic, brilliantly working together, all with fantastic timing: Gabe Amato, Annelise Baker, Emily Bordley, Leeds Hall, Emily Kelly, Christian Douglass, Corinne Munsch, and Natalia Nieves-Melchor.

The show has the feeling of a George Grosz painting, with Alejo Vietti's costumes like something straight out of Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter. Cory Pattak's lighting captures the dark, evocative mood of the Berlin club. The orchestra plays live on the second tier of the stage, and they are exhilarating; musical director is Angela Steiner.

This CABARET is a thrill ride, an ultra-fast and fulfilling two and a half hour journey. The success of the show must rest on the Herculean shoulders of the director, Josh Rhodes. As anyone who has seen his Sound of Music and Hair at the Asolo can attest, we're dealing with a sure-handed creative genius here. His staging is impeccable. There was only one real misstep in his vision: The song "If You Can See Her." If you haven't seen CABARET before, please know that what follows is a SPOILER ALERT. Usually in this song, the Emcee is singing to a gorilla, and ends up with one of the most wicked lines in Kander and Ebb's arsenal: "If you could see her through my eyes...she wouldn't look Jewish at all." Here, in Rhodes' version, it's not a gorilla that is being serenaded, but a pig. And this isn't some ugly swine, a la Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies; this is a boisterous, fun-loving, cuter-than-cute girl with what looks like a Porky Pig nose and ears. The problem is, she's such a joy to watch that, unlike the use of a gorilla, we see her as human. And the key to the song is that the Jews were not looked at as human beings, not to the Nazis, a shocking and deplorable attitude that the Emcee wickedly mirrors with the song. But having the cute pig-girl dance around reduces the stab-your-heart quality to those closing lines of the song; we miss the danger and pathos that "If You Can See Her" can bring. Mr. Rhodes' genius, his mixing it up with something different (which I'm all for), undermined the sad power that should act as a horrifying exclamation point to one of the show's most infamous songs.

CABARET is potent on so many levels, not the least of which is timeliness. It's a scary world out there, and after the show, we leave one scary world and enter another. There is a scene at the start of Act 2 that is truly terrifying. A blindfold game led by the Emcee, where the blindfolded Kit Kat Club performers search for a money box. But what is inside the box is something surprising that makes the audience suck in its collective breath. And then the blindfolded chorus line turn into Nazis, giving the sieg heil salute as, arm in arm, they follow each other offstage, all of them still blindfolded. Of all of Mr. Rhodes' inventive, ingenious additions, this is one that stays with you. Is there a better metaphor of Nazism, the blind leading the blind into an ocean of absolute hate?

CABARET at the Asolo runs thru December 31st. It's stunning, entertaining, hilarious at times, heartbreaking at others, fun and scary (sometimes at the exact same moment). And it's sadly not just a period piece. You hear the words "must see" bandied about quite a lot in various reviews; this is one show that more than earns that "must see" stamp of approval.

Photo by: Cliff Roles.



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