BWW Review: Come to the CABARET at Kennedy Center
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard of the musical Cabaret. Using Christopher Isherwood's stories and John Van Druten's 1951 play I Am a Camera as source material, Cabaret (with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff) received a Broadway premiere in 1966. The production eventually spawned a 1972 Hollywood movie featuring Liza Minnelli and original cast member Joel Grey. Since then, there's been multiple Broadway and West End revivals and a slew of regional and community theater productions throughout the world. In essence, it's been done to death, but rarely have two productions been exactly the same - and that's the beauty of the show. There's a lot of room for exploration and opportunities for many unique takes on the material. Some work, and some do not.
The current national tour, based on the recent Broadway revival at Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54 and taking up residence at the Kennedy Center through August 6, does just that - explore and provide a unique take. While there's never been anything particularly cheery about the musical, this version wonderfully embraces its darkness and cold undertones more so than a few others I have seen.
While it's never been particularly important to cast the best of singers in the show - the leading lady Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin), after all, is a singer at a less than stellar nightclub - this production also features some of great singing. The performers, together with the exceptionally tight and well-integrated band (conducted by Robert Cookman), makes John Kander's incredible music stand out even more than other productions I have seen. The acting matches the singing so in the end you have a wonderful, though challenging, night in the theater.
Set in Weimar Republic-era Germany, Cabaret examines how the social and political upheaval in the country with the rise of the Nazi Party is influencing everyday life in Berlin. The conceit is that American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley, who played the role on Broadway) takes a train to Berlin in search of a story. He meets Ernst Ludvig (Patrick Vaill) on the train and their interaction is his first clue that the macro political and social situation has profound implications for the individual. Once he sets up residence at a less than five-star boarding house and meets the owner Fraulein Schneider (the wonderfully talented actress-singer Mary Gordon Murray) who has feelings for a Jewish store owner, Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson), this challenging situation for the "every man" becomes even clearer. He goes to the Kit Kat Klub to indulge in some pleasures, but still cannot complete escape the changing dynamics of social life. While "anything goes" at the club and you can - more or less leave your troubles outside - eventually the troubles will permeate the literal and figurative walls. As much as Sally Bowles would like to convince herself and Cliff that the larger issues at play don't matter, they really do.
In this national tour, Director BT McNicholl (based on Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's original direction/co-direction) has chosen to play up some of the darker, subversive elements of the script, particularly with regard to the Emcee (Jon Peterson, no stranger to the role). The Emcee is the master of ceremonies at the Club and an omnipresent commentator of sorts on the social and political changes in the country. This Emcee, as portrayed by the agile and intuitive actor Jon Peterson, is powerful, deviant, and completely fearless. Ultimately these choices are good ones as the character can be used to show the true danger of the rise of ethnic-based socialist politics - even the most fearless, strong people are affected. That being said, the final scene may be a bit too obvious for some audience members as to explain what comes next (the Holocaust). I, however, thought it provided a nice follow through of some of the themes the musical, and especially this particular production, explores. Even though we've all probably seen something like the final images before on television, film, onstage, or in photographs, they make a strong emotional impact. Robert Brill's creative set design and Keith Caggiano's sound design (based on Brian Ronan's original work) are absolutely essential to the success of the final scene.
In this production, even the character of Sally Bowles is used to explore the dark and colder elements of the script. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her solo performance of the title song ("Cabaret"). Larkin, whose vocal talent allows her to bring this song to a level that others may not be able to reach, exudes bitterness and anger. At this point in the show, it's clear that Sally's "devil may care" attitude can only go on for so long. Her façade fades.
The hard-working ensemble cast portraying the Kit Kat Klub performers also provides the production with a hard edge. The triple talents shouldn't be overlooked - and neither should this production.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
CABARET plays at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theater (2700 F St, NW in Washington, DC) through August 6, 2017. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.
Photos: By Joan Marcus