From the stylized image of Liza Minnelli on the poster, you’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe the new and highly audacious production of the musical Cabaret at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale had some connection with the ‘72 movie. There’s none, just the image. In fact, not only has the show little to do with the Bob Fosse directed film, there’s little resemblance to the original stage production that opened on Broadway in ‘66. This Cabaret is the closer to the daring ‘93 London revival, a totally redesigned creation, as different from the film as the film was from the sixties stage original.
The fact that SYT decided to go with the more adult, highly sexualized adaptation rather than the original, more conventional version makes for an interesting debate, adding fuel to the fiery discussion of what is considered suitable and not so suitable for performance by a youth organization. But the Glendale based youth theatre has courted controversy before.
In 2016, it’s production of Spring Awakening initially raised eyebrows; the fact that it even attempted a production was a surprise. But the end result was quite remarkable. Part of its success was the casting of adolescents in adolescent roles – it was age appropriate. And while you could argue that only actors older with a more mature disposition could convincingly play those teenage characters and fully understand the significance of their new, developing emotions, the young SYT cast successfully fleshed out what was required to make it work, made all the more effective by having the adult roles played by adults.
Cabaret is a different animal. Here, all the roles are adult. With themes of homosexuality, pregnancy, abortion, antisemitism, plus the rising threat and ultimate horror of Nazism, the John Kander, Fred Ebb musical is not only a challenge for any youthful cast, but also one for audiences not necessarily keen to see adult content presented by such young faces. It has to be true that not all of the cast members here could fully grasp the kind of torment that many of these Cabaret characters are undergoing – academically perhaps, but at such an age where most of life’s challenges and disappointments have yet to be experienced, there’s no possible way of fully grasping the enormity of what is happening; there’s no internal emotion yet experienced from which a young actor can draw. Plus, it doesn’t help that some of the more adult characters from an older generation are clearly played by younger looking performers who, with either a graying wig or an obvious false mustache, can’t help but remain appearing young. It can be jarring, especially when, for a good length, the show has successfully managed to suspend disbelief on anything age related. But here’re some things to consider that makes this Cabaret surprisingly accomplished. Besides an effectively designed set by Michael Armstrong that uses the available space of Spotlight’s confined black box theatre area extremely well, director Kenny Grossman has struck good fortune with a new generation of young actors wanting to perform.
The young girls of Berlin’s seedy nightclub, the Kit Kat Klub, look as though they might actually perform there. In a pre-war city once known for its decadence, it’s probable that many of those performers were runaways, hired for their availability more than their talent, with little concern from management as to whether they were legally old enough to work or not. That sense of reality during the opening number, Wilkommen, is heightened even further by the low-rent costumes of the girls, the occasional and intentionally clumsiness in their choreography, the tired, dead-pan appearance of their pale, almost lifeless faces, and the blemishes, bruises, and, if you look close enough, the hickeys on their exposed skin. They’re like the walking dead as a dance troupe, where life, at such an early age, has already sucked them dry; all they have left to market is themselves which will soon burn out. The look and their moves are extremely effective, and Wilkommen, backed by an outstanding six-piece live band under Ken Goodenberger’s musical direction, plus Tina Caspary-Cyphert’s scene-setting choreography, is a musical highlight.
There’s also the believable casting of Vincent Pugliese as Kit Kat’s Emcee played, not as the tuxedo clad creepy ghoul of Broadway’s original, but as developed by Alan Cummings in the revival; a slinky, sexualized character in baggy pants and suspenders who doesn’t simply enter on stage but slithers. Pugliese lacks the obsequious, slick sensuousness of Cummings, but he creates something of his own. He’s the perverse one-man Greek chorus who not only draws the audience in, but also loiters and observes moments that occur outside of the nightclub, like a slyly demented apparition from Insidious, one that lingers unseen over your shoulder, finding cruel humor expressed by a cunning smile that comes at the torment of another.
Plus, the characters of both the American writer through whom all events are seen, Cliff Bradshaw (Aaron Brown) and the German civilian, Ernst Ludwig (Jack Taylor) are cast well, both actors conveying a sense of maturity in sound and appearance that convinces. On stage, they look and deliver dialog in a voice that suggests they are considerably older than they are. When Taylor’s Ludwig later shows his real colors, he’s an all too real, threatening Nazi presence, while Brown’s conflicted emotions of Bradshaw, torn between his homosexuality, his feelings for the show’s leading lady, and the frustration of knowing he needs to leave Berlin as soon as possible, is persuasively conveyed. It’s only in a later scene when he shouts with frustration during a confrontation with Sally Bowles that the reality of the character temporarily drops. He suddenly sounds less like an adult losing his temper and more like a teenager raising his voice.
But the real age-appropriate performance, and to whom this production truly belongs, is newcomer to the Spotlight stage, Sophia Donnell as Sally. Based on the real-life English performer and later social activist, Jean Ross, who was just a naive nineteen year-old when she moved to Berlin in ‘31 and worked as a singer in low-rent cabarets, Donnell is not only close in age to the real inspiration for Sally, but successfully creates the illusion that we’re watching the character as she was meant to be portrayed.
She not only maintains a good English accent throughout but her exchanges with Bradshaw have a natural quality to their delivery. When she performs Maybe This Time, she’s singing in character, but when she belts the song’s climactic notes, there’s a moment where it’s clear that the young performer is by far a superior singer than the mediocre Sally Bowles could ever aspire to be.
But the big moment is the title number, Cabaret. The song was made famous by Liza Minnelli’s glittering, showstopping rendition that ended the film with the dazzle of flashing showbiz lights behind her, but as presented in the show, things are quite different. Sung with the tear-stained face of someone suddenly aware of a life full of all the wrong choices, yet stubbornly clueless as to any sense of a future direction, the song is delivered with a savage, raw intensity. When Sally storms off the stage, audiences automatically cheer the performance, but the most complimentary response should be the one that was always intended – a stunned silence. With all the emotional highs and lows required to make Sally Bowles work, newcomer Donnell’s performance is quite the accomplishment, and a welcome surprise. She can really act.
Pictures by Joanne Wastchack
Cabaret continues at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale until Sunday, January 28