Photos by Jonathan Steele
By Karen Isaacs
Cabaret which is now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Sept. 1 has been a very popular musical in Connecticut this year. This production is the third one done by our professional theaters. Other groups have also produced it.
The reason why is not hard to discern given that the plot of Cabaret is about the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany, the anti-Semitism associated with it, and those who go along, don’t think anything will happen or are just oblivious.
As we have seen mass violence against a variety of people and ethnic groups not just in the US but throughout the world, the show makes some compelling points.
It’s hard to believe that anyone hasn’t seen some production of the show or have some idea of the plot, but to recount it briefly: It is 1931 in Berlin, and a struggling American writer arrives to help break his writer’s block. He immediately gets drawn into the world of a seedy cabaret (the Kit Kat Klub), an English girl who performs there and some Berliners who offers him friendship. Over the course of a few months, he observes the political situation spilling over into relationships and becoming uglier and uglier.
Director and choreographer Todd Underwood has used many elements of the well-known Sam Mendes revival of the show in 19xx. That production made the atmosphere seedier and more debauched than the original production in the 1960s could have ever done. Overall Underwood has done a very good job with the show though I found a few of his choices questionable.
But this show rises and falls on the two main and the four supporting characters. Here, Underwood has made some excellent decisions. Sam Given is the Emcee; he has just the right androgynous persona for a role that is meant to represent the seedy, lewd atmosphere of the club. His voice can sound feminine or masculine as he wishes. He certainly can put over the many songs he is given in the show. His role is to show the devolution of Berlin, becoming more and more decadent as the Nazis rise to power. While the performance is good, it doesn’t totally do that. Some of this can be blamed on Underwood and some on the costume designer, Kate Bunce.
Sally Bowles, the English cabaret performer and hedonist, is a very difficult role. She is not supposed be a great performer otherwise she would not be working at such a third-rate club. She is deluded about her talent and about people. The best Sally Bowles are often actresses who are not primarily singers but can sing enough and act the role: the original Jill Haworth, Judi Dench in London and Natasha Richardson in the revival.
Katie Mack is a singer but she manages to control her voice so that she makes a believable Sally Bowles except for the somewhat off-and-on English accent. Her performance is one of the best acted Sally Bowles’ that I’ve seen recently. It is only in the last number, the title song that she and Underwood stumble, quite literally. During the number I wasn’t sure if Sally is drunk, high on something, distraught or all three. But wondering about it distracted from the song.
Playing Clifford Bradshaw, the American writer, has to be one most frustrating roles for an actor. He is part narrator and part device for the plot serving as the clear-eyed observer who sees what is happening. Plus, depending on the version of the show, he has often no solo song; he’s gone for periods of time when attention is turned to the Emcee and Sally. Andy Tighe does as much as possible with the role. In this production, he does not have a solo. It’s an admirable effort; it would have been nice if there was more chemistry between him and Sally.
The four supporting performers also very good. As Clifford’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider, Carolyn Popp makes her more American than German despite a rather good accent. Her interpretation of the role emphasizes humor more than usual and somehow distracts from the dramatic moments. John Little as her suitor, Herr Schultz is excellent. He brought dimension to this role of the owner of a fruit market who is a German Jew who is certain nothing will happen. Though at the beginning, I felt he seemed very British in character, his portrayal grew on me.
Counterpoint to this middle-aged couple are Will Clark as Ernst Ludwig, the German who meets Cliff on the train and helps him get settled in Berlin. Clark’s portrayal is good but lacks a little spark that is necessary. Carlyn Connolly is excellent as Fraulein Kost, the prostitute who is revealed as a Nazi supporter.
Ivoryton has gone all out with this production; an eight piece band and a cast of sixteen. Scenic designer Daniel Nischan has done a good job though some things could have been better; the lighting design by Marcus Abbott was very effective throughout the show. Costume designer Kate Bunce had some missteps. The Emcee had too many costume changes for a seedy club, and in the “If You Could See Her” number, some costume elements hinted at the ending costumes.
One of the most annoying problems was with the sound, designed by Ray Smith. I was sitting in the balcony and a number of times, no matter how well I know the show, I could not make out lyrics; the band was overpowering the singers.
I’ve praised a lot of Underwood’s direction but the last ten minutes did not hit the mark as effectively as they could have.
Overall this is a very good production, which is well worth seeing. I’d recommend it for mature teens.
For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.
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