The Decadence Before a Fall

This seems to be a Holocaust Spring in terms of theatre, for we’ve been seeing a number of productions related to Germany during WWII. The latest was REP East’s revival of the seminal Kander-Ebb musical “Caberet“, which we last saw in 2009 in a production done by the Aerospace Employee Association. The REP’s revival was very different, and—in typical REP fashion, which is never conventional—challenged the way you look at this musical and heightened what you got out of it.

Let’s start with what the musical is about. Here’s what I wrote back in 2009 as a synopsis of the musical:

Cabaret was Kander and Ebb’s second musical, and featured a book by Joe Masteroff based on John Van Druten’s play, “I Am A Camera”, which itself was adapted from the novel “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood. The musical tells two intertwined stories taking place in 1931, just as the Nazis are rising in power: the first is a revue centered on the decadence of the seedy Kit Kat Club, the second is a story set in the real world in which the club existed. The basic plot concerns American writer Clifford Bradshaw and his visit to Berlin. After making a few friends and finding housing, Clifford visits the sleazy Kit Kat Club and meets an English singer, Sally Bowles. The writer and singer soon fall in love. Meanwhile, Clifford’s elderly landlord, Fraulein Schneider, gets engaged to a Jewish greengrocer, Herr Schultz – not an easy decision given the increasing influence of the Nazis. Soon, Clifford discovers that he has been inadvertently helping the Nazis by delivering packages to Paris for a German friend of his, Ernst Ludwig. Clifford ends up deciding to return to the United States but Sally, after aborting their baby, decides to remain in Berlin.

This story is told by intertwining scenes taking place in the Caberet that often echo what is happening in the real world, but in a more decadent or exaggerated sense. Thus, the “The Money Song” song echoes Cliff and Sally’s need for money; the title song “Cabaret” echoes how Sally views life. No where is this better seen than in the controversial song “If You Could See Here Through My Eyes” in the second act, where the emcee dances with a gorilla that he purports to love, ending with the “If you could see her through my eyes/she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

A musical like Caberet is a challenge for a theatre like the REP, which has a single black-box space with no fly space. In adapting the production for this space, they made a number of interesting decisions that made this production really unique. These decisions make themselves apparent even before you enter the auditorium, for the show begins in the lobby where the cast mingles, in costume, with the playgoers, and then starts to sing Wilkommen (into which they integrate the normal announcements about cell phones) to usher people into the auditorium. They also adapted some of the traditional dialogue and jokes in this song for their casting approach and orchestra (for many in the cast often play intruments (in fact, all of the band except for the piano and the percussion players).

The staging was unique, making extensive use of hand-held LED flashlights to give ominious lighting and a non-traditional look. The set design was bare-bones set design, primarily consisting of a large welded rotating cage with doors and a few simple props to suggest locations (as contrasted with the traditional painted backdrops of the AEA production). This work surprisingly well, especially for the final scene.

The biggest change made by the REP was to divide the MC role into three pieces, as some times doubling the emcee with three of the Kit-Kit club positions (Victor, Herman). This had the effect of changing the emcee from a single androgynous or slightly-gay character (think Joel Grey or Alan Cumming) to a family, as there was a Male Emcee, a Female Emcee, and even stranger, a Boy Emcee. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t gender-confusion: Each emcee at times dressed as the opposite sex (in fact, when the boy emcee came out, I wasn’t even sure it was a boy, given the hairstyle). There was even one point where each emcee was both sexes—in the number Two Ladies, each was wearing a costume that was half male (dress shirt, slack, black shoes) and half female (short skirt, sexy top, heels and hose). Throughout most of this show I was unsure about how this three-emcee thing was working, but I was sold in the final scene, where both the male emcee and Herr Schultz ended up inside, in the cage, in concentration camp clothing (with the appropriate symbols for homosexual and Jew), with the female emcee and the boy emcee, now in Nazi uniform, standing in front of them in a motherly pose. Chilling.

All three emcees were strong. The female emcee (and also playing alto sax and clarinet) was Rachel Brownæ (). She was particularly stunning (and chilling) in “I Don’t Care Much”, one of the few amplified songs I’ve ever seen the REP do. The male emcee (also playing Victor) was Malek Hannah () was also strong, particularly in Tomorrow Belongs To Me and the Entracte/Kick Lines. The boy emcee was JT Friedman, who perhaps was the most surprising of the three, given how adult his performance was (in fact, it was a little creepy to watch, knowing he was a teen, but then again, that was Berlin in the 1930s).

But Cabaret is not the story of the emcees, although it often seems that way. It is the story of the transformation of Germany from the decadant party atmosphere to the Nazi state, told through the eyes of the innocents—in particular, two couples: Clifford Bradshaw and Sally Bowles, and Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. In this production, both were strong. Cliff, portrayed by Adam Joseph Reichæ (), came across as very straightlaced, although there were implications of his being either homosexual or bisexual. He was a strong singer, especially in Perfectly Marvelous and Don’t Go. Sally was played by Kristen Heitman (). Kristen was strong in the role, and that perhaps was the problem: she came off as too cute, and was too good of a singer (as was demonstrated in her performance of Cabaret). I was hoping for a little seedier Sally (who is supposed to be a seedy cabaret performer in a second or third rate cabaret); but having a strong Sally is a common casting problem, for it often doesn’t hurt the performance. Note that I’m not saying Kristen’s performance was bad in any way; rather, it was too good. Such a problem!

The secondary couple were portrayed by Chera Hollandæ () as Fraulein Schneider and Robert W. Lauræ () as Herr Schultz. Holland (who also played glockenspiel) was strong both in performance and voice (especially in What Would You Do?), although I wasn’t enamored of her makeup, which was required to make her appear the requisite age. Perhaps that was a first-row problem in a small theatre—you see the magic. Laur was an appropriately befuddled Schultz, which was the intent of the role.

The supporting cast was also strong I was particularly taken with April Audiaæ () Shannon Bouknight as Fraulein Kost: she had a look that was captivating, and was a very strong singer. Christopher Karl Johnson had the right look for Ernst Ludwig that lulled you into thinking he was good until you learned his real motives. Rounding out the supporting cast were the Kit-Kat boys and girls: Shannon Bouknight (Rosie / Kit Kat Girl), Richard Van Slykeæ () (Max / Officer / Sailor / Guard / Nazi… and played cello), Mark Amacker () (Bobby / Sailor / Guard / Nazi… and played trombone and blow accordian), Laura Biery (Lulu / Kit Kat Girl), Dawnmarie Ferrara () (New York / Kit Kat Girl), and Jillann Tarara (Frenchie / Kit Kat Girl… and played violin). Rounding out the orchestra were Cassandra Nickols on piano and Johnny Schwinn on percussion.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

The production was directed by Mark Kaplan, who was responsible for the interesting changes in the production, and bringing out the most in the acting ensemble. The music was under the direction of Cassandra Nickols. The choreography was by Melissa White ()—it was good, but needed a little more oopmph at times… something that made it more seedy or risque. Vicki Lightner was Production Stage Manager, and Johnny Schwinn was stage manager.

Turning to the technical: The set was designed by REP regular Jeff Hyde, and was distinctly different than any other set I’ve seen Jeff design. You can see a picture of it in the review of the show from The Signal, which I’m lifting and shrinking. I have no idea how they are going to get it out of there when the show closes; evidently, they spent hours welding it together. Costumes were by Vicki Lightner and Christopher Chase and were perhaps my one slight disappointment. In particular, for the Kit-Kat girls and boys, they were good but could have been better. I expected something seedier and sexier. As you can see from the picture, the costumes covered from bust to butt, and I would think a seedy cabaret would be showing more skin, with the girls and boys always about to fall out of the costumes. Perhaps that didn’t work with Santa Clarita sensitivities, or perhaps it was my expectations. Other than that (i.e., for the other characters) they were excellent. Sound design was by REP regular Steven “Nanook” Burkholder and was strong; I was particularly impressed with the sound for Cabaret and I Don’t Care Much, which was the first use of amplified singing I’ve seen at the REP. Lighting design was by REP regular Tim Christianson, who did a number of innovative lighting approachs. The stage was mostly static leikos and lighting bars with heavy use of red and yellow to create menace; there was also heavy use of hand-held LED flashlights, which were very effective. Cabaret was produced by O Michael Owston and Mikee Schwinn.

Cabaret” continues at REP East until June 18, 2011. It is well worth seeing for its unique interpretation. Tickets are available through the REP Online Box office, and often through Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance. You can also find out about ticket bargains by friending REP East on Facebook.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: June begins with “Year Zero” at the Colony Theatre on June 5, but most of June is lost to the college visit trip (but who knows — we might go see “Always Patsy Cline” at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville). July starts with “Les Miserables” at the Ahmanson on July 2 (ticketed); followed by Western Corps Connection on July 3 in Riverside. July should continue with Jerry Springer: The Opera (July 8, Chance Theatre, pending ticketing); “Twist: A New Musical” (July 16, Pasadena Playhouse, ticketed); “Jewtopia” (July 17, REP East, ticketed); Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl); “Shrek” (July 23 or 24, Pantages Theatre, ticketed); and “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August brings “Doubt” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22, and (hopefully) Bernadette Peters at VPAC on October 16. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.