Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2004
Grimy and lewd, disturbing and surreal, the Theater Barn has pulled out all the stops to present a chilling and entertaining production of Kander and Ebb’s 1966 masterpiece Cabaret. Not a show for the faint of heart, Cabaret boldly blends music and theatre to bring the building horror of the Nazi threat in pre-World War II Berlin to life. It is as important a show as Broadway has ever turned out, and is well worth seeing in this intimate production.
In the late 1920’s a young writer named Christopher Isherwood spent time in Berlin seeking his muse. Later, his stories from that period were published, and playwright John Van Druten saw in the story of Sally Bowles the makings of an interesting play. I Am A Camera opened on Broadway in 1951 and ran for about a year, garnering two Tony awards for actresses Julie Harris and Marian Winters. In 1966 Hal Prince brought Cabaret to New York, based on Isherwood’s writings and Van Druten’s play, with a book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Joel Grey played the Emcee, Jill Haworth was Sally Bowles, and Bert Convy, who my generation remembers chiefly from various TV game shows, played Clifford Bradshaw, the Isherwood character. The show was a huge success, winning eight of the ten Tonys it was nominated for, including Best Musical, and running for three years on Broadway. In 1972 Bob Fosse’s film version starring Grey, Liza Minnelli, and Michael York swept the Oscars, again with eight wins out of ten nominations. A 1998 Broadway revival also snagged ten Tony nominations, won four of them, and ran almost six years, closing this past January.
What Prince, Masteroff, Kander and Ebb did that turned a so-so story of the tragic relationship between a slutty singer and a struggling writer into a brilliant musical was to make the show about the Kit-Kat Klub itself. Taking off from Shakespeare’s ascertion that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” here “Life is a cabaret,” and the Master of Ceremonies or Emcee is the omnipotent, all seeing God-head running the show. This is a role that made instant stars of Joel Grey and Alan Cummings, and casting it well is the key to successful production of Cabaret.
I walked in to the Theater Barn hoping that I would see Jarret Mallon as the Emcee, and I was not disappointed. Mallon has been smiling gamely through bland turns in Beguiled Again and Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? this season waiting to burst forth, like a singularly twisted butterfly from its cocoon, into this role to which his dark good looks and menacing acting style are perfectly suited. You can’t take your eyes off of him.
The great danger when a small, rural theatre which produces mostly family friendly shows tackles a dark and harsh tale like Cabaret is that they won’t dare to go far enough. I am relieved to report that there is very little of the high-school-girls-in-black-eye-liner-playing-at-being-whores sensibility to this production. Director John Simpkins, choreographer Penny Ayn Maas and their design team have created a whole vision of the decadent world of Berlin between the wars. Sure, Cabaret is just a cutesified American version of that world, if you wanted the real thing you’d been watching Brecht and Weill, not Kander and Ebb, but the Theater Barn has not held back for fear of offending, knowing full well that there is nothing more offensive than an inoffensive production of Cabaret.
The world over which Mallon presides is peopled by bisexual writer Clifford Bradshaw (Douglas Ullman, Jr.), the tawdry British chanteuse Sally Bowles (Laura Binstock), life-weary boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider (Alaina Warren Zachary), her suitor, the Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (P. Brendan Mulvey), her other boarder, a whore named Fraulein Kost (Kristin Stewart), and a young Nazi, Ernst Ludwig (Matt Hinkley). Sally and Cliff set-up housekeeping and she becomes pregnant, possibly with his child. Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz become engaged, but call it off. The Nazis win, for the moment. No one has a happy ending.
Ullman, also saddled with bland roles earlier in the season, emerges as an actor of broad talent and appeal here. He is believable as a young man searching for purpose and finally finding it in the denial, rather than the acceptance, of what is happening around him. Binstock is slightly too virginal to be completely compelling as Sally. She lacks the manic quality, the hysterical need to be loved coupled with the terror of all that love will demand of her, that Minelli and her mother before her were masters of. Nonetheless, Binstock is charming and puts everything her acting lacks into her singing. Her rendition of the title number, late in the show, is powerful.
Stewart is a revelation as Fraulein Kost. Her only previous appearance at the Theater Barn was in the dismal Honky Tonk Angels where she was a dim twinkle in a murky sky. Here she is all rage and malice, a Brechtian whore to make Lotte Lenya proud. And she can play the accordion. Who knew?
Zachary and Mulvey are solid and appealing as the older couple whose love is torn apart by the looming threat of the Nazis. Mulvey played Herr Schultz in the National Broadway Tour of Cabaret and is at home in the part. Zachary is a seasoned performer who brings Fraulein Schneider to life as a realistic but lively old broad.
At the Kit-Kat Klub we are promised by the Emcee that life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful. This, of course, is a lie. Life in the cabaret is all fake, and the girls are shop-worn hookers, but, at least at the Theater Barn, the three-piece band, headed by musical director Kasey RT Graham, looks pretty darned flash all in drag. Costume designer Jacci Fredenberg has spared no expense to make the five chorus girls – Eleanore E. Gutwein, Aryn Lawrence, Bridget Cox, Emily Cawrse, and Stewart doing double-duty – look just as cheap as possible. She does manage to preserve their modesty in real life while achieving the illusion that they are nearly naked. They are the eye-candy that lures you in to the lie.
There are also three Kit-Kat boys, played by Mark Mears, Marvin Avila, and Rob McCaffrey. They don’t get to do much except exude a pouty sensuality that can be construed as hetero- or homosexual depending on the moment. If they’re not near the boy they love they love the girl they’re near, that kind of thing. But Avila does get one hilarious star turn. I won’t tell you when or where, but it is a hoot.
Zeke Leonard has designed and Abe Phelps has constructed a functional and purposefully ugly set with two levels and three doors that makes excellent use of the small Theater Barn stage. Planks of random lengths hammered across the structure at odd angles add to the sense of dis-ease in the show. Allen Phelps has created a harsh and rapidly changing lighting plan that helps direct the eye where Simpkins wants it.
Don’t bring children under 14 to this show unless you are in the habit of exposing them to the realities of life early. There is nothing easy or comfortable about Cabaret and a lot that would be frightening to small children. I brought my 15 year old son and he absolutely adored the show, thought Mallon was "awesome," proclaimed at intermission that he didn’t want it to end and declared when the final curtain fell that it was his new favorite show of all time. But he also remarked “Boy, that went really fast from being naughty dancing girls to nasty Nazis, didn’t it?” This is not a happy family musical. This is a show for grown-ups.
Having painted what I hope is a realistic picture of what this show is and who it will appeal to, I have to say that this is the best production the Theater Barn has mounted in a long time – even better than their excellent production of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago at the end of last summer. The house was pretty much full the night I attended, so I think you’ll need to move fast to get tickets, but do try. It’s well worth the effort.
Cabaret runs through September at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is not suitable for young children or those who prefer their theatre wholesome. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004