Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Cabaret"

Full disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directers of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

B-R-A-V-O, and..."Wilkommen...leave your troubles outside...here life is beautiful...wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome..." to Cabaret, now playing a sold-out run as the Cloverdale Playhouse's first production in its second season, and forcefully imprinting its mark on the Montgomery theatre scene by bringing ambitious, challenging, edgy, and high-quality entertainment to the local community.

By way of Christopher Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin" stories, and John van Druten's play I Am a Camera, John Kander and Fred Ebb's inspired Cabaret took form on Broadway, generated the film featuring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, and spawned several international revivals, notably with Alan Cumming as the Emcee which is now regarded as the model to follow as is done in Cloverdale under Director/Music Director Randy Foster's keen eye and ear. Mr. Foster has produced an enviable ensemble production that, with only a few tentative acting and orchestral moments on opening night, is one of the best theatre events in Montgomery's recent history.

Set in a seedy nightclub in the late 1930s as Hitler was coming to power in Weimar Germany, the impending threat of Naziism creeps stealthily into the lives of the hedonistic entertainers of the Kit Kat Klub as well as to their customers and to the audience by association, as some of them are seated at tables abutting the stage and are occasionally conscripted to participate in the show.

When life is uncertain and potentially dangerous, the choices we make in order to survive often come at some cost; and so it is with many of the characters in this award-winning musical who find it hard to preserve their integrity and dignity while trying to eke out a meagre living, or establish a stable friendship or romantic relationship. The harsh reality is that they often make questionable choices, and we sense their unhappy fate from the outset as the Emcee's [Bill Cobb] ironic invitation to the cabaret as an escape for those already pretty desperate provides little solace from the outside world's pressures.

The party inside the club, with its free-flowing booze and easy sex, seem to dull the senses rather than stimulate them -- very effectively shown in the blank glowering stares and harsh robotic movement of the chorus of Kit Kat Klub Girls and Boys. -- The club is a mere distraction from the real world's impending crises; and it can't last. "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is an anthem begun by a solo child's voice signaling the devastation of World War II.

Everyone, it seems, wears a mask of some sort; a disguise through which they try to convince themselves that all is well. English cabaret singer Sally Bowles [Sarah Carlton] disguises her need for acceptance by always posing as a happy optimistic sort; but she refuses to face reality and escapes through drink and denial. Ms. Carlton's versions of "Don't Tell Mama", "Perfectly Marvelous", and "Maybe This Time" tell her story very well. And her relationship with Cliff Bradshaw [Wes Milton], a closeted bi-sexual American writer hinges on her inability to commit to it, even with an unexpected pregnancy that he is willing to accept. Mr. Milton's conflicted portrayal of Cliff is enhanced by his natural performance and an urgency to resist the financial rewards offered him by the two-faced Ernst Ludwig [Scott Page] as a smuggler for the Nazis.

A more touching story involved Fraulein Schneider [Eleanor Davis] and Herr Shultz [Billington Garrett]. She runs a boarding house where several other characters live, and turns a blind eye to the goings-on under her roof; though she claims a moral high ground, she allows Fraulein Kost [Rhonda Crim almost steals the show with her reprise of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me"] to entertain sailors nightly in her room in order to afford the rent, and she lets Sally move in with Cliff for the same reason. Though she is unconcerned that Herr Schultz is Jewish ["So What"], and though his intentions for marriage are accepted [Mr. Garrett turns in a most sympathetic characterization], when push comes to shove and Ernst Ludwig intimidates her, she calls off the marriage ["What Would You Do?"] in order to survive in the Berlin where she has lived and worked all her life. We feel her anguish.

The action shifts between the cabaret and the city outside, but much of the content in the cabaret songs provides commentary on the socio-political scene as well as on the problematic lives of its characters. The Emcee both conducts and joins in on the action; and it is his sometimes sinister editorializing that hammers home the intentions of the show. He knows full well what is going on, distracts people with outlandish behavior, and is a grim reminder to us all that the forces of Naziism and the dissolution of a brilliant cultural heritage were just around the corner. -- Mr. Cobb is a chameleon in the role, shifting personality and physically committing to the several nuances of his character, by turns threatening, charming, persistent, ingratiating, deviant, innocent, and utterly fascinating. His presence is felt even when he is off stage. But when he is on, it is hard to look away from him: whether he cajoles us with "Welcome to Berlin", or is a sly fox in "Two Ladies", or lets us know that "Money" makes the world go round, or beguiles us with "If You Could See Her" [a novelty dance number with a gorilla that has a twist at the end: "she wouldn't look Jewish at all" reminding us that there are better ways of looking at the world, that tolerance and compassion are needed], or devastates us in the "Finale" tableau dressed in Holocaust prison garb.

And Ms. Carlton's desperate singing of the title song, "Cabaret", signals her capitulation to the Emcee's invitation: live...have fun...ignore the truth. But the Emcee has the last word -- to us -- "Where are your troubles now?" Something to think about.