“Cabaret,” staged through June 12 at the Phoenix Theatre, is the latest production by Eclipse, the emerging artists program of Summer Stock Stage. While SSS works primarily with high-school age local talent, Eclipse’s focus is on early career professional talent.
It’s a show that continues to fascinate me, here staged by a company that’s commitment to quality matches its ambitious, unique mission.
–The show has a wild history. Christopher Isherwood wrote the original stories, which were adapted – with significant changes – into a play by John Van Druten. Further hefty changes were made when it morphed into a Broadway musical in 1966 via Joe Masteroff’s book and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. When the movie version was made, much of the plot was overhauled in Jay Presson Allen’s script and many of the songs were tossed out, with others added. Subsequent revivals folded songs from the movie back into the stage show, with further changes incorporated into most recent revivals. In recent productions, the emcee has become more of a presence throughout, he and the dancers have become more overtly sexual, and Cliff’s bisexuality is not longer just hinted at. Like such very different shows as “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Chess,” the version you see may be very different from the one your parents saw.
–Every time I see “Cabaret,” in whatever form, I’m reminded what a bold piece of theater it was and remains. That’s true when I was first exposed to it in a high school production when I was still in middle school and it’s true with Eclipse’s edition.
–“Cabaret,” in all its stage forms, plays not only with musical theater structure – mixing club scenes that comment on the outside world with more traditional break-out-in-a-song moments – it also messes with the audience’s attraction/repulsion to what’s being witnessed. It asks us to engage with a core couple who only the most naïve would expect to find a happily ever after. (Keep in mind that Broadway audiences in 1966 when “Cabaret” premiered could have gone, instead, to see “Mame” or “Hello, Dolly!”)
–“Cabaret” also boldly delivers a host, just known as the Emcee, whose background, relationship to other characters, and life outside of the club is not a consideration. Here, Matthew Conwell brings him to vivid life in a performance that wisely avoids copying the high-profile work of either Joel Grey or Alan Cumming and, instead, makes it his own.
– The character whose experiences we follow, writer Clifford Bradshaw, is usually the least interesting of the bunch. He is, as the title of the play version states, “the camera,” rather than the subject. But he can still have impact (Ben Tebbe proved that in Bob Harbin’s production at the Athenaeum back in 2012, where he delivered Bradshaw’s final lines with a haunting sense of bewilderment and loss).
— The young professionals involved in Eclipse should get course credit just for being on the same stage with Judy Fitzgerald and Charles Goad who, as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, offer master classes in how important reacting is to acting. (No slight to Fitzgerald, but every production I’ve seen of “Cabaret” would have benefitted by cutting Schneider’s second-act song “What Would You Do,” which drags out a dramatic scene, breaks up the dialogue, and preaches a message that the scene already delivers.)
– And there’s Sally Bowles. Any director of “Cabaret” has to decide how talented and how manic their Sally should be. If she got her act together and eased up on the nose candy, could she, to borrow another Fred Ebb lyric, make it anywhere? Or is the Kit-Kat Klub her natural habitat? Part of that depends on how the production deals with the club itself. Is it really a Berlin hotspot or a place where those with money can slum for fun? Those decisions impact the rest of the characters and the show itself. Here, the club quality question is dodged a bit thanks to a minimal set and the decision not to costume the onstage band. As to Sally, actress Cynthia Kauffman makes her flighty and determined and adept at denial, but also more grounded than most I’ve seen. Her rendition of the title song is passionate and rationalizing, but never at the expense of the notes. For contrast, check YouTube for the put-on-a-happy-face Liza Minnelli version or the total breakdown Jane Horrocks take on it (both riveting.) Kauffman is a terrific singer who gets and effectively conveys Sally’s desperation to be a character. But she’s never quite annoying, which works against the drama. Clifford’s slap is never justifiable, of course, but his violent act and order for her to sit down aren’t motivated unless Sally is exhausting. Here, she almost seems like a catch. (The moment might have been saved if Donathan Arnold’s Clifford had at least a moment of repulsion at his own actions after the slap.)
– All that being said, Eclipse delivers. The behind the scenes team on any production can be easy to overlook, but this “Cabaret” wouldn’t be nearly as strong without the choreographer of Alexandra Van Paris, who helps the talented Kit-Kat dancers to shine collectively and individually. The costuming of Jeanne Bowling — especially for Schneider — is a plus. And the music directing of Mike Raunick and sound design from Zach Rosing make it all crystal clear for the ears. It’s all focused via director Carlos Medina Maldonado.
– I realize local productions attract an audience that is often dominated by friends and family. At least, that’s my rationalization for the occasional over-the-top “woo-hoo” and applause after “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “If You Could See Her,” two of the most chilling songs in the musical theater canon.