Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Applause, but no standing ovation for CABARET at Blank Canvas, but big time accolades for Allen Cumming in Concert

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 aura of the growth of the Nazi party and the impending reign of terror.

Cabaret.  An award-winning musical 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, an 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 Blank Canvas.

Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966.  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 back at themselves, out of proportion, as they walked down the aisle. 

Lights up, the theatre’s brick side and back walls were all exposed.  Ironically, the staging was reflective of exiled German Jewish playwright Bertolt Brecht’s theory of theater: “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 is 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 Cumming) who, at the end of the play, along with all the other “decadents”—Jews, Communists, physically disabled—are taken off to the concentration camps.  

Reference was added to Cliff's bisexuality, including a scene where he kisses one of the Cabaret boys.  A 1998 Broadway revival, which also starred Cumming, further refined the script, added wandering musicians to bring out the alienation and identified each character with a musical sound.

Basically using the Mendes rewrite, the Blank Canvas production, under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco, works on some levels, stumbles on others. 

The staging creates many illustrations of the impending horror.  On the other hand, some questionable casting, a potential horrific ending was so fast in developing that the effect was lost, and some questionable costume choices, all added up to a less than stellar production.

On the positive level, young, angelic looking and sounding Colin Myers’ “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a haunting prelim to the horror that is to follow.  The reprise by Kimberly Eskut was emotionally haunting.

Bernadette Hisey is properly pragmatic and tender as Fraulein Schneider, whose purpose in life is to survive at all costs.  John J. Polk 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.  The duos’ versions of “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married” were charmingly tender.  Hisey‘s “What Would You Do?” was wrenching.

David Turner (Bobby), with a snarl and a sneer, makes for a proficient Kit Kat male dancer and Cliff’s former lover.  Stuart Hoffman (Ernst) is properly despicable as a scheming Nazi.  Kimberly Eskut is spot on as Fraulein Kost, Fraulein Schneider’s roomer, who offers sexual favors for pay to numerous sailors.

Tricia Bestic does the near impossible.  She not only doesn’t do a Liza imitation, but actually sings the meaning of “Cabaret.”  This is a song of great emotional depth, not a cutesy pop tune as is often the style in which it is presented, which gives the final clue to both Sally and Germany’s impending destruction.  Her beat down, rather than up-beat Sally Bowles, adds a unique dimension to the character.

Katie Zarecki’s choreography helped set the right decadent and sensual mood.

On the other hand, Devon Turchan tries hard, but winds up posturing at being the Master of Ceremonies, using surface vocal and physical gimmicks, in his failed attempt to imitate Allen Cumming.

Handsome Noah Hrbek, who has a nice singing voice, doesn’t get beyond the surface as Cliff.  

Luke Scattergood’s costumes were era correct but failing to put yellow Star of David on Herr Schultz’s jacket in his exit scene and avoiding using the pink triangle on the Emcee’s coat before he is hauled off to the furnaces, may have robbed the audience of the needed visual images that lead to the emotionally wrenching last scene.

The heavily brassed orchestra wailed the score.

Capsule judgement:  Cabaret gets a serviceable, yet flawed production at Blank Canvas.  The very fact that the production I saw received applause, not a Cleveland automatic standing ovation, gives a message that the show did not get the most out of the script.

Cabaret continues until December 17, 2017 in its near west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvastheatre.com

Endearing Allen Cumming in concert

It’s ironic that the same weekend as Cabaret, one of the shows for which he is best known opened at Blank Canvas Theatre, Allen Cumming appeared live in concert at the Connor Palace Theatre.

The talented Scotsman, not only gained fame from his sensual award-winning portrayal as the MC in three productions of the Kander and Ebb tale of the rise of Nazism in Germany, but for being Eli Gold in television’s “The Good Wife.”  His performance resume, which includes classical as well as musical theatre, television, commercials and writing, runs deep!

What few know is that Cumming has a commanding full, mellow, singing voice, is a delightful story teller, and has a magnetic personality, which, even in the cavernous confines of the Connor Palace, allowed him to grab and hold the attention of the audience.  In truth, the performance was better suited to a cabaret venue.

Using personal experiences and show business inside stories, Cumming even set up and coaxed the audience into giving him an extended curtain call.

Accompanied by a pianist, drums and a carbonite cello, his tales included his misguided decision to get his then-boyfriend’s name tattooed on his right hip.  The story of its removal and then the introduction of the now replaced lover, was highlighted by the appearance of the man, who is now a Clevelander, who displayed Cumming’s first name inked on his hip.

A Lisa Minelli tear-jerker, but fake tale, delighted, as did the story of doing a condom commercial, the review his penis got when he wore tight leather pants on stage, and his search for information about his mother’s father, all added to the audience’s delight.   

Cumming became emotionally wrought when he sang a song about his abusive father, bringing not only himself, but the audience to tears.

The only thing missing from the very entertaining evening was a rendition of at least one of the songs from Cabaret.  Oh well, you can go to the Blank Canvas production of the show to hear the songs.