Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play is well known for its raunchy, witty musical acts staged at the decadent Kit Kat Klub in Berlin, 1929-1930. These are indeed masterworks that brilliantly demonstrate how entertaining the darkest instincts of our nature can be. Starting with the Emcee (played with wicked glee by Randy Harrison) protruding a beckoning finger from behind a shabbily painted door, he bids us "Willkommen" to the world of the club, introducing us to the voluptuous Kit Kat Girls, the sharply chiseled Kit Kat Boys, and their highly sexual anything goes credo. There is no turning back from there.
But in addition to its musical panache and a dazzling score composed by John Kander and Fred Ebb (the first hit for these legendary team), Cabaret is an extremely well written book musical. Joe Masteroff's book grips us with twin tales of impossible love and its specter of historical inevitability. Cliff Bradshaw is an American author seeking inspiration for his next novel in Berlin. He finds a room in a boarding house run by world-weary but practical Fräulein Schneider, then finds his way to the Kit Kat Klub. He catches the eye of singer Sally Bowles, the club's "star" attraction. Soon after, Sally shows up at Cliff's room, having been fired from the club (which was also her residence) by jealous owner Max who saw her eyeing him. She talks her way into Cliff's room and into his heart.
Fräulein Schneider has a suitor of her own, good-hearted fruit shop owner Herr Schultz. When they are caught in a compromising position by Fräulein Kost, a prostitute also living in the boarding house, he rescues Fräulein Schneider's honor by announcing that they are planning to be married. Afterward, he reveals to the grateful but startled Fräulein that this has, in fact, been on his mind and he convinces her that they are not too old to begin to share their lives. They think nothing of the fact that he is Jewish. After all, he is also a German, he has always been a German.
Oh, but it does matter. The tides of Nazism are rising on the economically and morally barren shores of Weimer Germanysubtly at first, but increasingly in the open, as illustrated by the song "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," a lovey anthem that evolves into a ghostly goose-step. Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz find their union to be dangerous; Cliff recognizes the threat to all, and wants Sally to leave Germany with him, but she is held hostage by the illusion of glamour, fun, and total absence of responsibility in her life among the cabaretsher philosophy summed up in her closing song, "Cabaret," performed here with Sally slipping into a trance, then awakening as the music sharpens, then plays faster and faster, as Sally becomes enraged, realizing she cannot keep up, and there is no jumping off.
The original production was innovative for its time, with its blatant debauchery and use of the cabaret numbers to reflect the social context in which the book scenes occur, and in which the brute force of Nazism is able to take hold. Still, the times required some restraint. The 1998 revivalwhich, for all intents, is the version now at the Orpheumwas able to go beyond heterosexual normsin both the cabaret and the book scenesand to be more direct in its depiction of anti-Semitism and Fascism. The role of the Emcee is also expanded. No longer limited to the club acts, he is a presence in the book scenes, a constant reminder that Cliff, Sally, Schneider, and Schultz are under the same sky as the dangerous brew of debauchery and intolerance over which he presides.
Randy Harrison, known from the television show "Queer as Folk" and a few shows Off-Broadway, lives up to the demands of the Emcee. He sings with charm that can pivot on a dime to ugliness and moves with lithe sexuality in sync with the Kit Kat Klub boys and girls. He exudes a playful decadence that one wishes to believe is harmless mischief, only history has taught us otherwise. In the song "I Don't Care Much," he expresses a state of apathy that is heartbreaking. Andrea Goss is exquisite as Sally Bowles. She sings well, maybe a tad too wellthe premise is that Sally is a self-deluded third-rate singer, whose career will never advance beyond the jobs gotten by hopping into bed with a club owner. Nonetheless, along with a lovely voice, she convincingly portrays a lost soul over her head in experience but blind to its terrible cost. Her performance of "Perfectly Marvelous" persuades the audience, as well as Cliff, that he should let her move in. She sings "Maybe This Time" with heartbreaking sincerity, and, as stated above, knocks the socks off "Cabaret."
Mary Gordon Murray, a Broadway veteran, is marvelous as Fräulein Schneider, cautious but knowing that one cannot avoid living the life that stretches before them. The character has two powerhouse songs, written for the role's originator, the great Lotte Lenya: "So What?" and "What Would You Do?" Murray does full justice to both, especially inflating the latter with the force of her despair. Scott Robertson is appropriately sweet and honorable as Herr Schultz, totally winning in song "Married." Of the major characters in Cabaret, Cliff has always seemed the least interesting. As an outsider and observer, his role is less animated than the others. Benjamin Eakeley does a fine job in the part, persuasively awakening from his moral stupor to recognize the dangers of the Nazi movement.
Alison Ewing and Patrick Vail do strong work in their roles as a prostitute with her eye on survival and a Nazi operative, respectively. The entire troupe of Kit Kat Boys and Girls are fabulous, singing with gusto, taking on bit parts in Kit Kat Klub skits with disdain, and dancing with utter disregard for usual standards of decency, with choreography by Cynthia Onrubia, recreating the production's original choreography by Rob Marshall. The Kit Kat Boys and Girls also form the show's band, along with a dozen other musicians, including conductor Robert Cookman, and they sound fantastic. A generous "Entr'acte" that finishes with a stellar Dixieland romp through the title song, is a treat.
The design work for the show is deceptively simple. William Ivey Long's costumes are on the modest side (in terms of extravagance, not skin coverage), with the Kit Kat Girls wearing what seems no more than undergarments. The Emcee's costume, however, is highly sexualized, with suspenders passing below his crotch, and a V cut at his waist pointing downward. For the scenes, the characters are all given costumes appropriate for the era, and for their station in life. The set designed by Robert Brill is similarly simple, relying on a wall with three doors from which people come and go in Fräulein Schneider's boarding house, a large window that descends proclaiming that we are now in Herr Schultz's fruit shop, a few chairs to signify a train. The lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari adds to the decadence of the Kit Kat Klub scenes, and creates a stunning illusion to close the show.
This is the fourth major production of Cabaret I have seen (including the Broadway original) and it feels in no way tired, redundant, or overly familiar. If anything, the news of the day (the unbelievable turns our national elections has taken), and the way in which appeals to our baser instincts are met, make the show blazingly relevant. Aside from that, it is a masterpiece of musical theater, with great music, a moving and well-crafted book, state of the art design, and sublime performances.
Cabaret runs through October 23, 2016, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $39.00 - $139.00. Student and educator rush tickets can be purchased at the box office two hours before each performance at $25.00, two tickets per valid ID. For ticket information call 612-373-5661 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.cabaretmusical.com.
Music: John Kander; Lyrics: Fred Ebb; Book: Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and the stories by Christopher Isherwood; Director: BT McNichol; Original Director: Sam Mendes; Original Co-Director and Choreographer: Rob Marshall; Choreography recreated by: Cynthia Onrubia; Set Design: Robert Bill; Costume Design: William Ivey Long; Lighting Design: Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari; Sound Design: Keith Caggiano, based on the original Broadway design by Brian Ronan; Hair and Wig Designs: Paul Huntley; Orchestrations: Michael Gibson; Dance and Incidental Music: David Krane; Music Director: Robert Cookman; Casting: Jim Carnahan, C.S.A, Jillian Cimini, C.S.A.; Music Supervisor and Vocal Arrangements: Patrick Vaccariello; Technical Supervisor: Larry Morley; Production Stage Manager: John M. Atherlay. Executive Producer: Sydney Beers.
Cast: Sarah Bishop (Helga), Alex Bowen (Boy Soprano - recording), Ryan DeNardo (Hans, Rudy), Margaret Dudasik (Texas), Benjamin Eakeley (Clifford Bradshaw), Alison Ewing (Fritzie Fräulein Kost), Hillary Ekwall (Rosie), Andrea Goss (Sally Bowles), Aisling Halpin (Frenchie, Gorilla), Randy Harrison (Emcee), Leeds Hill (Bobby), Andrew Hubacher (Victor), Tommy McDowell (Herman, Customs Official, Max), Mary Gordon Murray (Fräulein Schneider), Scott Robinson (Herr Schultz), Fred Rose (Customs Official - recording) Dani Spieler (Lulu), Patrick Vail (Ernst Ludwig).