Cabaret

By: 
Ben Miles

Cabaret is now up and running in the Studio Theatre of the storied Long Beach Playhouse; it’s a rousing musical that made its stage debut in the 1960s and is about the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s, but it has great relevance to these moments of the 21st century.

Joe Masteroff wrote “Cabaret’s” book. Fred Ebb penned its lyrics and John Kander scored the music. But the story is from John Van Druten’s 1951 play, “I Am a Camera,” which in-turn was taken from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, “Goodbye to Berlin.”

The musical “Cabaret” premiered on Broadway in 1966. It won eight Tony Awards – including the prize for Best Musical. In an acclaimed revival, “Cabaret” was awarded the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. (In that same staging the late Natasha Richardson garnered the trophy for Best Actress in a Musical.)

The key to “Cabaret’s” enduring success (for her work in the 1972 film version of “Cabaret” Liza Minelli won the Best Actress Oscar) is its melancholy mixture of melody and history; music and emotion; pragmatic love with seething hatred – a sure-fire recipe for drama if ever there was one. “Cabaret’s” setting is Berlin, 1931 – the cusp of ascendance for Germany’s Nazi Party.

The locale is in and around the ill-reputed Kit Kat Klub – an establishment similar to the one where Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch might have taken place. Sally Bowles is an English 19-year-old barely making it as a cabaret singer at the Klub. Sally becomes involved with the American journalist, Clifford Bradshaw; he’s in Deutschland looking for fodder for his writing. Clifford rents a room from Fraulein Schneider. Meanwhile, Fraulein Schneider is sparking a romance with fruit vendor, Herr Shultz. Due to Shultz’s Jewish heritage, however, their budding love is put in peril.

Moreover, as the plot’s trajectory gains complication and momentum, our constant guide, our eye-to-society, is the Kit Kat’s own Emcee, Noah Wagner in a hauntingly charismatic portrayal; he’s a sort of metaphoric embodiment of the Fatherland’s descent into totalitarianism. Initially the Emcee figure is carefree and playful. But as he slides from frolicking free-spirit into the dire condition of state prisoner we feel the claustrophobic fear and destructiveness of a country being locked-down under fascism.

Under the skillful direction of Sean F. Gray the dark sentiment of “Cabaret” is on full display. It is a wonder to watch this show come to life in the confines of the Playhouse’s Studio Theatre. As “Cabaret’s” tension builds our dread mounts; but there’s a feeling of excitement and exhilaration to be in the presence of such a consummate production in a space so intimate.

With Kander and Ebb’s moving compositions – “(Come to the) Cabaret” is one obviously affective example, but “Mein Herr,” “Money,” “Maybe This Time” are as memorable as any tune in the musical theater canon – and with a cast of characters as dimensional as the theater has to offer, “Cabaret” is a must-see event meant for mature audiences. (Don’t bring the children.)

Furthermore, the players here connect to their characters as if the lives they are portraying are merely unfolding. Remarkably, each song in this marvelous musical moves the action forward in a manner that seems as natural as events occurring in the daily news – no small feat for a tune-laden two-a-and-half-hour production.

With Hailey Hardy’s engaging choreography and under the musical direction of Stephen Olear (with an impressively versatile sound design by Spencer Richardson – who orchestrates the live multi-piece band) “Cabaret” is a sensory experience that plays on a multitude of emotional levels.

Courtney Riel Owens is an unlikely protagonist as Sally Bowles. Nevertheless, Owen touches a skewed naivety in her characterization that makes her role particularly poignant. What’s more, Owens’s frail voice is pitched perfectly to convey Sally’s vulnerabilities.

Austin James settles into his portrayal of Clifford Bradshaw as comfortably as he wears the Depression-era wardrobe of fedoras and wide neckties (costuming by Donna Fritsche). James’ naturalism well suits his performance and this staging.

Lisa J. Salas’ turn as Fraulein Schneider is an arrow-through-the-heart. To see this aging and resigned character open herself to and then close off from love is sadness incarnate. Fraulein Schneider’s state of mind condemns her to love lost.

Adding muscular support to the cast are William Ardelean as the newly Nazi-fied Ernst Ludwig; Steve Shane as the star-crossed Herr Shultz; and Gabrielle Gutierrez as the hussie-for-hire, Fraulein Kost. Moreover, the mise en scene is enlivened by a chorus of a dozen or so Kit Kat “Boys” and “Girls” – all provocative in dress, demeanor and dance.

“Cabaret” is an opportunity for theatergoers in L.A. and The OC to catch a show that’s able to capture both the heart and the mind. It’s a distressing story, but audiences still leave the theater humming the tunes and swaying to the unique artistry on display in the Studio Theatre of the Long Beach Playhouse. Do come to the “Cabaret.”

For reservations, call (562) 494-1014. For online ticketing, visit www.lbplayhouse.org.

ben@beachcomber.news

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