Cabaret, book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Fred Ebb, music by John Kander; based on "Goodbye to Berlin" by Christopher Isherwood and "I am a Camera" by John Van Druten. Directed by Frank Latson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Natalie Stringer, Tyler Greggory, Meagan Wells, Jenny Angel, Richard Howe, Ally Barrale, Nicolas Baumgartner, Jennica Joseph; photo: Erika Floriani
"What am I going to do? The usual thing."
The ensemble with Richard Howe as the Emcee (rt); photo: Erika Floriani
Sally Bowles says the words above when confronted about making a decision that could alter her entire lifepath. Sally is not an easy person to love, in fact the final song in the show says it all "I don't care much. . ."
The musical, when it was first produced in 1966 shocked audiences with its frank sexuality, it portrayal of Nazis in 1931 and the impact a mixed marriage (German and Jewish) could have on an elderly couple. If those audiences could see the current version of the show - which was a solid smash hit back then - the word shock would not describe their reaction. I do believe that this 1998 version, particularly in the new production at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont, would irritate and leave crippled and ill the audiences that so appreciated the musical in its original, hard-to-take form.
The original ending had moments in which each of the principals was seen for the last time as they had been seen before while the emcee assured us that what we were witnessing was proof that the Nazis couldn't change anything, that "everything was still beautiful," a statement we all knew not to be true, but the hopefulness of it in the light of truth made the show palatable. In this version, and this is a spoiler alert for I don't normally talk about these things but you need to know, the principals and the chorus and the orchestra are sealed in a gas chamber in a concentration camp and put to death with lethal gas. In a way, so is the audience. So, now you know: "Go or stay, I don't care very much. . .either way." The choice is yours.
The trip to this emotional downer is paved with great songs and good performances. In particular the part of Fraulein Schneider, played by an earthy yet ethereal Christine Decker, is emotionally a roller coaster ride through human relationships. Decker gives us the very human woman behind the decisions she makes: taking Cliff in as a boarder, allowing Fraulein Kost to continue her work, returning a gift. Each of these decisions is considered and Decker makes us see how the costs are weighed against the gains. In her songs she sings with note-perfect gusto. She also makes great sense, paying as much attention to the words as to the music.
Her vis-a-vis, Herr Schultz, is given a charming interpretation by Wynn Harmon. He manages to be different from the rest of the folks on stage without being belittlingly stereotypical and that was lovely to see. No one has ever presented a pineapple with the charm Harmon manages.
Richard Howe is the oldest Emcee I have ever seen in this show and he pulls it off grandly. His singing voice is perfect for the part and his face, sometimes wrenched to one side, is both menacing and marvelous. You cannot take your eyes off of this man when he is on the stage for he dominates everything just by being there. Sometimes this character is portrayed as devilish or as pure evil, but in this theater's version of the show the emcee is more a parameter provider. He contains the players within a wide grasp and he manipulates them to his personal satisfaction. That is malevelance. Howe does it masterfully.
Amanda Garcia plays the prostitute Fraulein Kost with tongue-in-cheek humor and we are grateful for it. Peter Langstaff is a perfect Ernst, the new friend who becomes a Nazi. He is chillling at the end of Act One when he and Garcia join voices in the Nazi anthem. Nicolas Baumgartner and Tyler Greggory are the Kit-Kat Club "boys" who "do for." They are marvelous and the girls of the ensemble who play so many roles do so very well; they are: Ally Barrale, Jennica Joseph, Natalie Stringer, and Meagan Wells. Tom Ferguson is a nicely threatening Max.
So much of this show rides on Sally and Cliff and this time around it is a bumpy ride. If we concede the fact that Sally Bowles, cabaret performer, is a second-rate talent then Jenny Angell has certainly gotten that part right. Sally's on-stage songs are sometimes hard to listen to for Angell uses an annoying, nasal voice for them which sometimes tends toward the moderately off-pitch. However when she gets to Sally's own introspective moments, songs that need to affect our hearts, she is still caught in this awful Sally out-loud voice. Angell's bio cites a number of other musicals, but if this is how she sings, I don't anticipate a long musical theater career for her. She could also use a good dialect coach for her British accent is one step above ridiculous.
Steve Parmenter, on the other hand, sings well, acts well, is dashingly handsome and really makes Cliff human and understandable and even pitiable for his misplaced love and trust. The two have some touching moments together, but most of those are carried through by Cliff, rather than by Sally, and that is partly due to the book of this show and its well-fashioned scenes. By the end of the play Cliff becomes overly bossy and insensitive but he is fully overcome by fear for his life and for Sally's as well. Parmenter actually takes this a hair too far and we start to like him less which is something that should never happen.
Some of these choices may fall into the lap of the director, Frank Latson, who has used the wide expanse of the playing space at Oldcastle very effectively. The picture he has presented of these people in that time period is faithful to its sources and we never mistake then for now which is a big piece of the success of this production. The simple set by Bill Aupperlee works well for the show, keeping everything in the foreground. David Groupe has lit the show decently but an occaisional button on a musical number and/or scene would have been appreciated. Liz Stott's costumes are in keeping with the period and the place although they did hark back to 1928 now and then instead of 1931.
I guess I'd have to say I liked this production, as disturbing as it was by the final blackout. I like shows that make me think AND feel and this one certainly did. A better female lead might have kept me more enthralled, but perhaps a bit of alienation from the news of those days is not a bad thing and doing it this way is viable. Good people and grand material make for a satisfying theatrical experience and I always believe that people need to see things for themselves and make up their own minds. I don't say that often but in this case it is my best advice. Be an adult / make up your own mind.
Jenny Angell as Sally Bowles and Steve Parmenter as Cliff Bradshaw; photo: Erika Floriani
Cabaretplays through August 2 at Oldcastle Theatre on Main Street in Bennington, Vermont. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line at www.oldcastletheatre.org.