Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review of "Cabaret" at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford

The impressive production of Cabaret, playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through July 21st, takes its cue from the 1993 London revival (transferring to Broadway in 1998) with its more highly charged sexual nature and, especially, in the reconceptualized role of the Emcee.  Most older theater and moviegoers remember the tuxedo clad Joel Grey in the part.  He was a mischievous and malevolent imp presiding over the decadence within the Kit Kat Klub.  In the 1993/1998 revival, Director Sam Mendes literally stripped down the role of the Emcee, now scantily dressed and much more overtly debauched and sinister.  The Kit Kat Klub, in this version, is a considerably more hedonistic and debased environment.

Audience members are introduced to the Berlin cabaret of the late 1920’s to early 1930’s, where most of the action of the show takes place, before even setting foot in the theater.  The foyer of the Playhouse has been transformed into an extension of the Kit Kat Klub with dark recesses and roaming cabaret boys and girls offering a hopeful look or lecherous smile.  Once inside, we are introduced to the Emcee, a spindly, sexually amoral, and salacious character, played with an obsessed intensity by Brendan Norton.  He oversees the wickedness and naughtiness in the club’s environs, which serves as a metaphor for the decadent, overindulgent world of pre-Hitler Germany.  Outside, as Nazi storm clouds gather, the story focuses on Cliff Bradshaw, an American would-be novelist, and his relationship with young Sally Bowles, the headliner at the Kit Kat Klub.  A secondary plot revolves around the blooming romance between Fraulen Schneider, an aged proprietress of a rooming house, and Herr Schultz, an older fruit vendor who also happens to be Jewish.

The action nimbly switches between the lewd and bawdy entertainment within the Kit Kat Klub, where song and dance provide biting social commentary, to the lives of the protagonists trying to make sense of the great political and social upheaval looming on the horizon.

The large cast is full of accomplished actors, starting off with Brendan Norton as the seemingly deprived master of ceremonies.  He convincingly portrays a being that is angry and contemptuous of life, exuding a depravity that is both frightful and pathetic.  Jake Loewenthal brings a degree of compassion and sensibility to the role of outsider Cliff Bradshaw.  Loewenthal has an outstanding singing voice which, due to the role, is never adequately displayed.  As the elderly Frau Schneider, Kathleen Huber is a jumble of apprehension, confusion, and anticipation.  

The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb is one of the composing team’s best.  Melodic with sharply observant lyrics it includes such timeless classics as “Willkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Perfectly Marvelous,” “What Would You Do,” and “Cabaret.”  One minor point--I do wish the musical numbers were included in the show’s program.   The score is greatly enhanced by a consummate pit band, under the superb musical direction of Colin Britt.  Their professionalism allows the audience to more fully appreciate the songs in a live theatrical setting.

Choreographer Darlene Zoller provides stylish dance numbers that are a combination of sensuality and raunchiness.  The strength of Zoller’s work, however, is more in the movement of the Kit Kat Klub denizens throughout the show.  They strut, pose, and parade themselves around the dance floor in an almost adulterated ballet. 

Director Sean Harris allows the tension and drama within Joe Masteroff’s book to slowly build to its bittersweet and tragic finale.  On the almost scenery-less stage, with very few props and furnishings, he allows his actors to take charge and make this production of Cabaret a defining moment for the Playhouse on Park.

Cabaret, playing at the West Hartford theater though July 21st.  Let’s hope they continue to infuse their programming with more well-staged musicals.  For dates and times visit their website at