Cabaret, the ground-breaking Kander and Ebb musical about sex and show-biz played against a backdrop of the Nazis’ rise to power in Berlin, gets a compelling production at Olney Theatre Center.
Director Alan Paul’s shiny new show uses the revised book and tune-stack from the well-regarded Studio 54/Roundabout Theatre revival that opened in 1998 and stamps it with his own style. And he has cast it impeccably from top to bottom with actors who execute the gem-filled score as if the composers wrote it for them alone.
As you’ll recall from the stage or film versions, Cabaret is the story of parallel worlds occupying the same space in the pre-war Berlin of the early 1930s. There is the adventure of American writer Clifford Bradshaw, in Berlin to work on a novel which could hardly match with the drama he finds when securing a room or wandering into the Kit-Kat Club, Berlin’s classy (in this production) nightspot, hosted by an androgynous Emcee.
Cabaret closes October 13, 2019. Details and tickets
These separate worlds are intertwined by Paul’s clever staging, placing the outside world in the middle of the Kit-Kat Club, with just a few hints of furniture to change the landscape.
Gregory Maheu gives us a Clifford Bradshaw straddling the line between all-American charmer and troubled hedonist as he tries to maneuver his way through the increasingly perilous times. Clifford’s sexual proclivities are apparent from the beginning (something only hinted at in 1966), making his tempestuous relationship with the fetching and free-spirited nightclub singer Sally Bowles even more complex.
“The toast of Mayfair,” Sally Bowles is a firebrand; a self-centered, devil-may-care wild woman who embraces the laissez faire atmosphere of Berlin and bewitches nearly all who come into contact with her. Alexandra Silber slips into the role of Sally as easily as she slips on Sally’s lacy lingerie and green fingernail polish. She lets us see the open-eyed innocence hidden beneath Sally’s in-your-face attitude and ultra-sensual demeanor. Possessing a wide vocal range, Silber interprets Sally’s iconic songs – “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr,” “Maybe This Time,” and the title song – with style and power. Her rendition of “Cabaret” builds to a marvelous climax and is one I’ll remember for quite some time.
For the budding, tentative romance between German Fräulein Schneider and her Jewish tenant Herr Schultz, Paul has cast two well-known DC actors, Donna Migliaccio and Mitchell Hébert. Migliaccio plays Fräulein Schneider with grace, gravity and humor, a perfect offset to Hébert’s genteel and melancholy shopkeeper.
In the role of part-time smuggler and political operative Ernst Ludwig, you’ll no doubt recognize Tom Story. Story’s Ernst combines affability with cool German efficiency which turns to calculated menace as the story unfolds. With but a handful of scenes and one snippet of a song, Story still manages to leave a lasting impression.
But what of the emcee, you ask? Paul places the principal role of the Emcee in the hands of a relative newcomer to our area, Mason James Alexander. Audiences who caught the national tour of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Kennedy Center have seen his turn in the title role.
This Emcee may have given a nod to predecessors Joel Grey and Alan Cumming (the original and revival Emcee’s, respectively), but Alexander is a wonder to behold as the oily, reptilian master or ceremonies: commanding, sexual, perverse, and – at strategic times – menacing. His “Willkommen” was certainly welcoming, but his performance of “Two Ladies” (with ensemble members Rick Westercamp and Jessica Bennett) was a deliciously salacious celebration of polygamy. “If You Could See Her” displayed both the comedic and the painful truth of prejudice.
Scenic designer Wilson Chin provided Paul and his choreographer Katie Spelman with an elegant, flexible setting, rich with gold and crimson accents, complete with parquet floors that suited the Berlin of the early 1930s. Colin K. Bills expertly lit the production, taking the action from the nightclub to the other settings with cinematic ease. Likewise, the detailed, period costumes were spot-on, denoting the different classes and personal styles of the denizens of Berlin, with racy garments for the Kit-Kat Club performers and the Emcee.
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John Kander and Fred Ebb’s rich score and sharp lyrics are in the best of hands with this perfect cast. Musical director Christopher Youstra and his 11 piece orchestra bring the score to life with sparkle and shine.
The brilliant Kander, Ebb, and Masterhoff skillfully combined the razzle dazzle of show business with the darkness about to envelope 1930s Germany. Alan Paul, his cast and collaborators take the property, handle it with style and care, providing an escape into a dark and troubled time.
“Life is a cabaret, old chum!” And you won’t want to miss this Cabaret.
Cabaret . Book by Joe Masterhoff . Music by John Kander . Lyrics by Fred Ebb . Directed by Alan Paul . Featuring: Jessica Lauren Ball, Jessica Bennett, Patrick Ford, Ben Gunderson, Mitchell Hebert, Andre Hinds, Lina Lee, Gregory Maheu, Donna Migliaccio, Mason Alexander Park, Rick Westercamp, Bridget Riley, Alexandra Silber, Tyler Quentin Smallwood, Tom Story, Katy Tabb, Louisa Tringali, and Rick Westercamp . Choreography by Katie Spelman . Music Director Christopher Youstra . Set design Wilson Chin . Costume design by Kendra Rai . Lighting design by Colin K. Bills . Sound design by Matt Rowe . Stage manager: John Keith Hall . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.