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Cabaret

Book by Joe Masteroff, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed by Justin Been

Chorographed by Zachary Stefaniak

Stray Dog Theatre

April 3, 2014

 

Paul Cereghino, Paula Stoff Dean  Photo by  Stray Dog Theatre

Paul Cereghino, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Surely nobody in the audience at  Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Cabaret on opening night had visited a cabaret in 1930’s Berlin.  That era is so  far removed from the present time and place that it’s easy to gloss it all over as stories in a dusty history book.  What Stray Dog has done, however, is take its audience on a journey and immerse us in the very atmosphere of a dark and seedy nightclub in the waning years of Germany’s Weimar Republic. It’s gritty, it’s raunchy, and the issues get increasingly uncomfortable as the plot unfolds.  It’s a bold take on an oft-performed musical, and what we are left with is a truly unforgettable experience.

This production is a lot more atmospheric and downright gritty than the excellent but overly polished production I saw at the Rep last Fall.  Here, Stray Dog Theatre has transformed their performance space at Tower Grove Abbey into the dark, sultry Kit Kat Club, with the ensemble members even roaming around before the show in character as music from the era plays over the sound system, and also serving drinks and  desserts at tables in the front row during the show. This production uses the whole performance space to full advantage, presided over by Lavonne Byers as the ever-present Emcee, who serves as a commentator on the action as well as the presenter of the various club performances that are interspersed with the story of American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Paul Cereghino) and Kit Kat Club singer Sally Bowles (Paul Stoff Dean) and their lives and relationships amid the growing political turmoil and the rise of the Nazi party and its effects on German culture.  Throughout the story, it’s clear that the world is changing and the club serves as one way to escape that reality, and although Sally is perhaps the most self-deluded, she’s not the only one faced with the dilemma of what to do when life doesn’t turn out as wished, and the over-the-top bawdy acts at the club increasingly evolve into more and more stark echoes of the increasingly frightening reality of what Germany is becoming.

Byers, the first female Emcee I’ve seen, is the driving force behind this production and she brings a boldness and ferocity to the role as well as a strong wit and clear, richly-toned singing voice.  From the rousing “Wilkommen” to the  raunchy and ironic “Two Ladies” (with Byers as the “only man” and one of the “ladies played by a male dancer (Mike Hodges) in drag), to the cutting “If You Could See Her” and the melancholy “I Don’t Care Much”, Byers commands the stage and serves as an ideal host for the show’s increasingly chaotic proceedings.  Having a female in this role brings a different meaning to some of the songs, although Byers plays up the androgyny in several of the numbers as well.  She also achieves the commendable feat of emphasizing the character’s humanity in the midst of the increasing absurdity.  Dean’s Sally is at once dynamic and tragic, and she manages to find sympathy in a character who can be difficult to understand at times.  Cereghino’s Cliff is charmingly infatuated with both the Berlin society and with Sally, although I’m less convinced by his attitude later in the play where he occasionally comes across as more callous and bossy than concerned.   Still, Dean and Cereghino complement each other well in most of their scenes together, and particularly in their initial duet “Perfectly Marvelous”. Ken Haller also puts in an excellent performance as the Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz, whose relationship with the conflicted Freulein Schneider (Jan Niehoff who is especially fine in her scenes with Haller) provides some poignant and sweet moments as well as some heartbreaking drama.  With great work by Michael Brightman as scheming Nazi Ernst Ludwig and Deborah Sharn as the lascivious and calculating Freulein Kost, as well as a top-notch ensemble of Kit Kat Boys and Girls, this production boasts a cast that ideally showcases the classic and oft-produced material.

The raw edginess and contrasting absurdity and realism of this production is also very well served in its technical aspects.  Rebert J. Lippert’s striking two-level set and Aleandra Scibetta Quigley’s colorful and detailed costumes help set and maintain just the right mood, as does Zachary Stefaniak’s outstanding choreography and director Justin Been’s excellent staging.  This is a production that brings the audience along on a ride, from its promising opening to its startling conclusion with many daring twists and turns along the way.   Although this production has obviously taken inspiration from the 1998 Broadway revival, it’s not a carbon copy.  It’s very clearly and boldly realized in its concept. It’s difficult to single out particular songs and scenes because everything is so well done, from the outrageously challenging (“Don’t Tell Mama”, “Mein Herr”, “Two Ladies”) to the sharply satirical (“The Money Song”, “If You Could See Her”) to the hopeful (“Maybe This Time”) to the devastatingly tragic (“Cabaret”).  With songs from the film integrated with those from the original production, expertly performed by the cast and the very high caliber band led by Chris Petersen, this show is musically as well as visually stunning. It’s not an easy show to do, and this team does it as well as I’ve ever seen, tackling the lighthearted scenes as well as the increasingly brutal subjects with remarkable skill. I also would like to commend the company for their great professionalism in the midst of the very strange weather on opening night, in being able to start, stop, and re-start the show with remarkable efficiency as the result of a tornado warning.

Short of inventing time travel, I can’t think of many ways to communicate the atmosphere of 1930’s Berlin as vividly as this production.  It’s a tour-de-force all around, from the director to the creative team to the leads and the extremely strong ensemble.  Stray Dog’s Cabaret gives us a good look at life in this very specific time and place in a production that’s at turns wildly entertaining, grippingly suspenseful, intensely tragic and even downright frightening.  Although this is a show that is often produced and re-imagined, this production succeeds in being truly and profoundly memorable.  It’s an outstanding example of live theatre at its challenging, thought-provoking best.

Lavonne Byers (center)  and the Kit Kat Boys (Mike Hodges, Michael Baird, Zach Wachter, Brendan Ochs) Photo by Dan Donovan Stray Dog Theatre Photo by

Lavonne Byers (center) and the Kit Kat Boys (Mike Hodges, Michael Baird, Zach Wachter, Brendan Ochs)
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

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Cabaret

Book by Joe Masteroff

Based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood

Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

September 13, 2013

Nathan Lee Graham Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nathan Lee Graham
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s a new season at the Rep, and they’ve gotten off to a good start with their production of the classic musical Cabaret.  As I took my seat, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I had seen the film and listened to some of the revival cast recordings but had never seen the show live.  I found the Rep’s production to be well-crafted and an excellent introduction to the live show.

Cabaret is a show that makes me think.  That’s the point, really—the juxtaposition of the carefree hedonism of Berlin in the late 1920s-early 1930s with the dawning reality of growing Nazi influence and control in Germany, and the parallels between the performances at a local seedy night club, the lives of some of the performers and regulars of that club and their friends.  Cliff Bradshaw (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka) is an American author caught up in the midst of all the turmoil as he becomes involved with self-destructive nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Liz Pearce), and the world around them is reflected in the performances on stage, led by the enigmatic and ubiquitous Emcee (Nathan Lee Graham), who introduces the show as a performer at the club but then becomes something of a commentator on the situations in the play, as Cliff, Sally and their circle deal (or try not to deal) with the increasingly volatile political situation.

As Cliff, who serves as both a player in the proceedings and a bewildered and increasingly horrified observer, Herdlicka is ideally cast.  It’s a role that could easily be ignored among all the more colorful characters in the show, but Herdlicka makes Cliff at once likeable and interesting, and his reactions to what is going on around him are compellingly portrayed.  His chemistry with Pearce as Sally is one of the highlights of this production.  Sally’s increasing denial of reality is well-portrayed by Pearce, as is her fun-loving spirit.  I also found the subplot involving Cliff’s landlady, Frau Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray) and the sweet older Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz (Michael Marotta) to be particularly engaging.  Both Murray and Marotta deliver wonderful performances, and every scene they have together is compelling, from their sweet duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More” to the hopeful “Married”.   Murray’s solo “What Would You Do?” is particularly poignant, as well.  Their plot is kind of the “heart” of this show, and the resolution adds emotional resonance to the increasingly unpleasant reality of the changing life of Germany and the growing sense of hopelessness and denial.

With all the fine performances in this show, the standout is definitely Nathan Lee Graham as the Emcee.  Sporting an array of elaborate outfits from the requisite top-hat and tails to more outrageous ensembles that range from skimpy lederhosen, to Wagnerian opera diva, to a ingeniously-designed half-suit/half evening gown combination. Graham is a wonder and a enigma, as a character who serves as both a literal and figurative host for the evening’s proceedings and appearing anywhere and everywhere on stage, above the stage and even in the audience throughout the performance.  He is at once chameleon-like and cartoonish, and a little unsettling at times.  Graham has a great voice, moves nimbly, and has amazing stage presence and whenever he is on stage, he is the center of attention.  From the strangely inviting “Wilkommen” and throughout all of his songs, from the raunchy “Two Ladies” to the broadly satirical “Sitting Pretty/The Money Song” to the haunting, “I Don’t Care Much”, Graham is a force to be reckoned with, leading the cast with authority, pizzazz, and an almost otherworldly magnetism.

In doing my research about this show, I’ve discovered that the Rep’s version of Cabaret seems to be unique in terms of structure and songs used.  It doesn’t exactly mirror any of the famous stage productions or the Oscar-winning film, but rather seems to be a combination of elements from several of these productions.  I especially liked how the film song “Maybe This Time” was integrated with Cliff’s song “Don’t Go” to give Sally and Cliff a parallel moment that speaks volumes for their situation.  It’s one of my favorite scenes in this production, and I particularly liked the chemistry between Herdlicka and Pearce.  The futility of their situation is made all the more heartbreaking watching these two try to make things work.  Also, “Sitting Pretty” and its film replacement “The Money Song” are both used here, with great spectacle by Graham and the club dancers, presenting a tableau of excess and materialism with several elaborate costumes and much energy.

All of the musical numbers are presented well by a well-cast ensemble, from the bold intro, all of the outrageous production numbers, to the eerily zealous “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, to Sally’s devastatingly real rendition of the title song late in the proceedings.  Even though I did find myself, at times, wishing things would be a little seedier and more extreme, the excellent cast performs their parts well and brings the audience into the atmosphere of 1920s Germany, and the cacophonous finale is both jarring and powerfully thought-provoking.

From a visual standpoint, this production is spectacular, with a meticulously detailed set designed by Michael Schweikardt, complete with flashing neon sign (seen from behind, with one letter burnt out—a nice effect), a small stage and tables to represent the club, and set pieces brought in to represent Cliff and Sally’s apartment and other locations.  It’s the Kit Kat Club that dominates the proceedings, though, and all the details from the multi-level stage to the small club tables complete with old-fashioned telephones set the mood exactly right.  The choreography is also very well-done, with energetic dance numbers and slick production numbers, even if at times they are a little too slick, although the proceedings did get noticeably more chaotic as the action progressed, which I think is fitting.

For the most part, I would say this Cabaret is a success–a feast for the eyes and ears, as well as the brain.  It’s an engaging depiction of a tumultuous time in world history, with superb visuals and an expert cast.  It makes a compelling start to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s 47th season, and makes me want to come back and see what else the Rep has in store this year.

Cast of Cabaret Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Cast of Cabaret
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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