Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

From the first potent image of the Emcee (Alex Nee) rising out of a smoky, Stygian darkness, director Michael Matthews announces his intention of challenging our thoughts about Kander and Ebb’s classic musical Cabaret. This does not mean that Matthews is disrespectful of the material. He’s too good a director to make arbitrary or perverse decisions just to be different. It means that he has studied the script and score in such detail that he is able to find a concept that is personal, provocative, and original.

Cabaret has a complex history with many permutations of the basic story. Christopher Isherwood's quasi-autobiographical Berlin Stories' views the rise of Nazism during the Weimar Republic through the passive eyes of a British visitor. John Van Druten dramatized the stories in his 1951 play, I am a Camera, where a young Julie Harris captivated audiences as the irrepressible Sally Bowles.

Hal Prince’s original 1966 Cabaret production was a tremendous artistic and popular success despite the fact that it explored adult topics previously unknown in Broadway musicals. Bob Fosse’s seminal 1972 film version of Cabaret was undeniably brilliant and boundary-pushing, but it differed greatly from the Broadway original, both in plot and in the additional songs that Kander & Ebb wrote specifically for Liza Minnelli. The current version of the show is the one used by the 1998 Broadway revival which interpolates songs from the film and features a revised book that is franker than was possible in 1966.

Matthews’ incisive direction propels the action forward while making sure that every moment is completely realized. In this, he is aided by a strong cast of actor/singers. Nee’s Emcee is a magnetic force of nature who can growl or caress a lyric for maximum effect. While the Emcee has always been an integral part of Cabaret, the role has grown exponentially in importance and stage time over the years. Nee is nearly omnipresent, bringing a dangerous, feral showmanship to his numbers. But, where most Emcees remain aloof and otherworldly throughout, Nee offers glimpses of the man beneath the mask. His humanity is on full display during a searing rendition of “I Don’t Care Much.”

Talisa Friedman’s wonderfully expressive face allows us to see each tiny crack in Sally Bowles’ optimistic façade. She performs the club numbers with an irresistible enthusiasm but can turn on a dime as she does in a devastatingly emotional “Maybe This Time.”  Christopher Maikish is sympathetic as Cliff, the visiting American writer who loses his innocence in Berlin. It’s not his fault that the role of passive observer remains a literary device that none of the dramatic adaptations have adequately solved.

June Carryl’s strongly sung Fraulein Schneider may bluster and complain, but her heart is easily accessed. This gives her doomed relationship with the Jewish Herr Schultz, endearingly played by Matthew Henerson, an inevitability which is all the more painful when it ends. Katherine Tokarz’s eminently practical Fraulein Kost blends hints of Madeline Kahn and Lesley Ann Warren into a delicious concoction all her own that handily steals every scene she’s in. (Tokarz plays the role only through July 15.)

Matthews knows how to use the tiny Celebration Theatre space effectively, and he has gathered a creative team who all share his vision. Stephen Gifford’s detailed and smoke filled sets offer just enough to suggest the locations, while Matthew Brian Denman’s expert lighting completes the picture. Michael Mullen’s costumes are the essence of sexy, shabby chic and deftly introduce contemporary touches. Janet Roston’s choreography is energetic and appropriate for the less than stellar dancers the Kit Kat Klub would have employed, while Music Director Anthony Zediker leads the band in a vigorous reading of the score.

There’s no doubt that the rise of a graceless leader who adroitly uses showmanship, racial tensions, and outright lies to fuel his political career has resonance for today’s audience. I go back and forth about whether the few moments when Matthews tips his hand to blatantly make his point are any more effective for being so baldly stated. But, in the end, they don’t affect the impact of this terrifically persuasive revival.

Celebration Theatre @ The Lex    June 1 – July 15, 2018