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Cabaret – Theatre Review: ASU Gammage, Tempe

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You may not notice at first. As you enter ASU Gammage’s large auditorium searching for your seat, look up to the stage. At first glance, what may appear like stage hands moving around on an unlit set turns out to be the cast, already there, limbering, stretching, and casually passing remarks to each other. It’s as though we’re peeking into the usually unseen backstage warm up process, except that here it’s on full display before us with the house lights on.

In Roundabout Theatre Company’s revived production of the Broadway musical Cabaret, now playing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until September 18, there’s plenty more unconventional theatre to come. Based on the praised 2013 Sam Mendes/Rob Marshall Broadway revival, that feeling of nightclub intimacy created within the confines of New York’s Studio 54 could never be achieved in quite the same way at Gammage or any other large venue, but once the sound of a snare drum swells to a loud roll, the cymbal crashes and our Master of Ceremonies, the Emcee (Randy Harrison) slithers on stage with all the musical flamboyance of a perverse ghoul, he draws us in. Bathing the heads of the audience throughout the following opening number in a warm, indigo glow only adds to the effect that all of us, even in a vast auditorium like Gammage, are right there in 1930’s Germany seated within a seedy late night Berlin cabaret called The Kit Kat Club.

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Those whose knowledge of the 1966 musical is confined to the Bob Fosse directed film may be in for a shock. The ‘72 movie re-molded the show, cut songs, added new ones, and completely overhauled the plot. While the overall themes were similar, characters and names were changed, so were the geographical origins of it principle players. It resembled little of the original. The American writer arriving in Berlin became British while the sad, vulnerable, 19 year-old central figure from London, Sally Bowles, became American, and as played by Liza Minnelli, she was now a somewhat older nightclub singer who could really belt a showbiz tune. If Liza’s Sally Bowles is the only Sally you know, then you really don’t know Sally Bowles.

Tracing back through the spidery web of revivals, re-inventions and re-writes, in the way the film bore little resemblance to the original stage show, then this current and thrilling Roundabout Theatre Company tour bares little resemblance to either. While plots and characters from Joe Masteroff’s script are back to where they were, and songs are reinstated, including some written just for the film, the show’s style of presentation, first introduced by director Mendes in his 1993 London production, are world’s apart from when the Emcee made his first entrance and Broadway’s Jill Haworth and London’s Judi Dench played the largely tragic figure of young Sally Bowles.  It’s a different show.

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The strength of the production is the presentation of the songs, whether they’re the large, ensemble numbers like the excitingly staged introductory Wilkommen, or the solos such as Fraulin Schneider’s powerful So What (an outstanding Mary Gordon Murray) and the title number, Cabaret. The songs performed within the Kit Kat Club are a musical way of commenting on events occurring outside, thus when the ‘Toast of Mayfair,’ third-rate teenage singer from Blighty, Sally (Andrea Goss) moves in with aspiring writer from Harrisburg, PA, Cliff Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley) the unconventional arrangement of convenience is underlined by a performance back at the club of Two Ladies with the Emcee and two nightclub dancers. Or when Cliff earns some easy cash by running a suspicious errand, the Emcee and the ladies perform Money.

The rise of the Nazis in the streets of Berlin is also introduced through song. At first there’s little presence, then like an obscene, uninvited guest, Nazism rears its ugly head when the Emcee brings on an old gramophone player while a 78 rpm of a boy soprano sings a patriotic anthem to Germany. At first, the song paints a peaceful, idyllic picture of the Fatherland until the Emcee dramatically slams the lid of the player and gives the audience a Nazi salute. All of a sudden the lyrics to Tomorrow Belongs to Me take on a different and more menacing meaning. And when Cliff is psychically beaten by a swastika wearing bully boy, Ernst Ludwig (Patrick Vaill) and his bodyguard thugs, it’s done to the syncopated beat of the nightclub drums.

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Perhaps the biggest musical surprise is the difference between how the title song Cabaret is performed by the Sally of the film and the Sally of the show. It’s most famous presentation is naturally Minnelli’s. It was even a 70s radio hit. But what was delivered as a climactic, show-biz belter with a big, open-armed finish from an undeniable Broadway star is here rendered as a weary indictment to a wasted life purposely sheltered from the rising horrors of the real world. When Andrea Goss’ heartbreaking rendition of the title song concludes with the declaration that ‘Life is a cabaret,’ it’s delivered with guttural irony and bitterness. She angrily throws the mic to the ground and storms away as if acknowledging that she has purposely chosen ignorance over common sense by not leaving the country with Cliff at a critical time in history. It’s a powerful moment of musical drama. A showstopper, yes, but not the Minnelli way. The Gammage audience, wired to applaud a famous hit tune, loudly cheered as the distraught teenager disappeared out of the spotlight, but the drama would have been better served had the house remained silent.

While the musical numbers could be heard without issue, the dialog between characters in the first act was often difficult to comprehend, often rendering some of the lengthier exchanges between Sally and Cliff as mumbles; you could see them fine but the obscurity of sound made them and others feel as if they were speaking from a different room. However, the audio of the second act was noticeably improved. It wasn’t so much the volume that needed adjustment, just the clarity.

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From what we witness in the effective, concluding moments, those who remained in Berlin at the nightclub – Jews and other ‘undesirables’ – were in for a terrifying future. The nightclub’s orders to leave your troubles outside would no longer apply as those monsters on the outside with the wooden clubs and swastikas reached in and grabbed. At the fade out you’re reduced to a stunning, unexpected silence before the cast return to take their bow.  If you only saw the original 60s production or all you’ve known is the more popular 70s movie, then this Cabaret is not what you’ll recall, but once you’ve seen the revised Roundabout Theatre Company production, you won’t easily forget it, either.  The next touring show in October at ASU Gammage is The Sound of Music.  If the Von Trapp’s escaping Nazi persecution is the stuff of musical dreams, then Cabaret, as presented in this production, is Sally Bowles’ nightmare; one from which she’ll never wake.

Pictures courtesy of Joan Marcus

For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official ASU Gammage website

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