Monday, October 10, 2011


No standing ovation for CABARET at Great Lakes Theatre

CABARET. It’s 1931 in Germany, a country of unrest. We find ourselves at the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy cabaret, a place of decadence and emotional abandonment. Hanging over the entire scene is the growth of the Nazi party and the impending reign of terror.

CABARET. A musical loosely based on John Van Druten’s play I AM A CAMERA, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s GOODBYE TO BERLIN, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

CABARET. A glimpse at Sally Bowles, a young English cabaret singer, her seedy life as a performer, her doomed relationship with American writer Cliff Bradshaw, and a strong subtext of another doomed relationship between German boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider and her suitor Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. Not to be overlooked is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, who oversees the entire affair, not aware that he is also on a doomed path.

CABARET. A version of which is now on stage at Great Lake Theatre.

The musical opened on Broadway in 1966. Immediately upon entering the theatre, the audience was struck by the difference between this and other shows. The curtain was up, a large convex mirror reflected each person out of proportion as s/he walked down the aisle. Lights and the theatre’s brick walls were all exposed. Ironically, the staging was reflective of exiled German Jewish playwright Bertolt Brecht’s theory of theatre: alienation (awareness that you are watching a theatrical production), epic (that which was presented is bigger than life), and historification (a message from the past, which the viewer was to bring into the present, and learn from the experience).

The original cast included award winning Clevelander Joel Grey as the Emcee. Grey went on to also star in the 1972 movie version which featured Liza Minnelli as Sally.

In the London revival of 1993, under the direction of Sam Mendes, the show took on a new persona. The emcee morphed from an asexual, malevolent character to a highly sexualized homosexual (brilliantly portrayed by Allen Cummings) who, at the ending of play, along with all the other “decadents”—Jews, Communists, the physically disabled—are taken off to the concentration camps. Other changes added references to Cliff's bisexuality, including a scene where he kisses one of the Cabaret boys. A 1998 Broadway revival, which also starred Cummings, further refined the script, added wandering musicians to bring out the alienation and identifying each character with a musical sound.

The Great Lakes Theatre production, under the direction of Victoria Bussert, works on some levels, stumbles on others. Basically using the Mendes rewrite, the general staging is acceptable, creating many of the right highlighting to illustrate the impending horror. On the other hand, some questionable casting, pedestrian choreography and a costume glitch, produce problems.

Neil Brookshire develops a believable character as American writer Cliff Bradshaw. Laura Perrotta, is properly both hard and tender as Fraulein Schneider, whose purpose in life is to survive at all costs. John Woodson is wonderful as Herr Schultz, the Jew who thinks he is a German and naively assumes that the forces that are coming will assume the same.

Perrotta and Woodson’s versions of It Couldn’t Please Me More and Married, Perrotta’s So What and What Would You Do?, and the wrenching Tomorrow Belongs to Me were the production’s vocal highlights.

Danny Henning (Bobby), with a snarl and a sneer, makes for a fine Kit Kat male dancer and one of Cliff’s former lovers. Jim Lichtscheidl (Ernst) is properly despicable as a scheming Nazi. Sara Bruner is spot on as Fraulein Kost, Fraulein Schneider’s roomer, who offers sexual favors to numerous sailors.

On the other hand, Eduardo Placer feigns at being the Master of Ceremonies. The performance is all on the surface, filled with vocal and physical gimmicks, never giving a clue that he understood the power of his character. The same can be said for Jodi Dominick’s Sally. Besides having difficulty singing the marvelous songs that the role is given, she never gives a clear reading of her basis for desperateness, the vulnerability that is covered by bravado. The flailing hands, high pitched vocal adventures into trying to dispilay desperateness, didn’t help create a believable character. Don’t expect to hear an emotionally moving version of the theme song Cabaret.

Gregory Daniels’ choreography was efficient, but never developed the underlying sensuality of the Kit Kat girls, nor the power needed to create the impending issues, nor was there any clear distinctive style displayed.

Charlotte Yerman’s costumes were era correct and worked well, but her yellow stars for the Jews and pink triangles for the homosexuals, were so small that unless a viewer knew what was going on, there was no way to catch the meaning in the quick last scene. In fact, while exiting the theatre, a woman was overheard saying, “I didn’t know the MC was Jewish,” which obliterated part of Mendes’ rewrite highlighting that more than Jews were taken to their deaths.

Capsule judgement: CABARET gets a serviceable, yet flawed production at Great Lakes. The very fact that the production I saw received light applause, not a Cleveland automatic standing ovation, gives a clear message that director Victoria Bussert did not get the most out of the script.