Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Review of "Cabaret"

Cabaret, the landmark 1968 musical with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and a book by Joe Masteroff needs to exude a decadent immorality. This is Berlin in pre-War Nazi Germany where a looseness and anything goes depravity in the city’s nightclubs is the norm. Without this backdrop, Cabaret loses its power of seduction and socio-political commentary. In the production at the Summer Nutmeg series in Storrs, CT through July 21st, there is an underlying sheen of vulgarity and sin, but it is muted.  In addition, under Scott LaFeber’s direction, the key performances of the Emcee and Sally Bowles are not as strong which, unfortunately, tilts the focus of the show to the two secondary characters, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. 

The story of Cabaret revolves around American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), who arrives in Berlin as the Nazis are coming to power in Germany.  On the train, he befriends Ernst Ludwig (Aidan Marchetti), a shadowy, politically connected, figure, who recommends a rooming house, run by the aged Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty) for him to reside during his stay in the German capitol.  That night he and Ernst take in the Kit Kat Klub, a seamy, nightclub, overseen by a sinister, scowling Master of Ceremonies (Forrest McClendon), where Cliff becomes enthralled with the headline performer, Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly).  The two quickly become an item and move in together.  A parallel plotline concerns Fraulein Schneider’s ill-fated romance with Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Jonathn Brody).  Both relationships eventually fray and dissolve just as Nazism becomes a more ominous and deadly force within everyone’s lives.

Throughout the production, the sense of menace and hedonism within the Kit Kat Klub is subdued.  The musical numbers, choreographed by Christopher d’Amboise, are entertaining, but do not convey a sense of naughtiness and eroticism one would expect in such a setting.

The cast, the usual mix at the Summer Nutmeg series of Equity and student performers, is a decidedly mixed bag.  Forrest McClendon, who received a 2011 Tony nomination for his performance in The Scottsboro Boys, portrays the Emcee as a large, caged cat, with shoulders pumping up and down.  He prowls the stage showing both contempt and a restrained appreciation for the audience.  The actor’s approach to the character, however, is more low-wattage.  It is not very risqué and the sexual ambiguity, so key to the role, is lacking.  Laura Michelle Kelly, who has appeared on Broadway and the London stage (she was the original Mary Poppins in the West End) is also less impactful as Sally Bowles.  The actress possesses a powerful singing voice that she showcases in such numbers as “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” But the allure, the mischievousness, the mystery of the character is missing in the performance.  Her relationship with Cliff lacks chemistry and comes across as more perfunctory.  The character of Cliff Bradshaw has always been less captivating compared to the other roles in the musical.  While Rob Barnes, a third-year MFA student at the University of Connecticut, has done splendid work in previous productions he comes across as too young and not as nuanced in this portrayal.

The real stars of Cabaret are Dee Hoty as Fraulein Schneider and Jonathan Brody as Herr Schultz.  Ms. Hoty gives a master class in acting.  Her performance is so heartfelt and strong, her songs so affecting, you yearn for her appearance on stage. Brody’s depiction of the Jewish grocer is equally earnest and impassioned.

The score by the legendary composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb is arguably their best work.  There are so many iconic numbers in the show, most performed with pathos and urgency that captivate the audience.  From the exuberant “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Two Ladies” to the bittersweet ballads of “So What?” and “What Would You Do?” the score is an artistic triumph.  Music Director Ken Clifton leads a dynamic onstage band that gives a richness and vitality to the songs.

Director Scott LaFeber has toned down the decadence of the production.  While a sense of urgency is in the air, the ruination within the German city and populace is not front and center.  He has assembled a large ensemble of spirited Kit Kat Klub performers that create a fullness to the production.  The finale of the Cabaret, what should be the emotional zenith of the show is, instead, a puzzlement which required a quick reference check on Wikipedia when I returned home from the performance.

Cabaret, playing through July 21st in Storrs, CT.

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