Neill Robertson. Photo: Crystal Ludwick for Commonwealth Theatre Center.
Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Seth Lieber, Music Direction by John Austin Clark
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The idea of two companies in one community doing the same show within a few months of each other poses many questions. Sometimes the rights to a popular musical become available and there is something of a feeding frenzy – a dedicated theatergoer could have availed themselves of no less than four productions of Mamma Mia! in this area in the last year. Perhaps they were all stellar productions. I certainly didn’t hear any complaints about poor attendance, which indicates either an insatiable appetite for an ABBA jukebox musical or the payoff of careful cultivation of core audience support by each company. In any case, nobody appeared to suffer any ill effects from the repetition.
Cabaret is not a new musical, and the fact that both Pandora and Commonwealth Theatre Center chose it for this season has more to do with the statement both companies wanted to make by staging a musical about the rise of Fascism in 1930’s Germany. Although there are many differences between the two companies; one an adult group with stated mission to tell stories with a focus on LGBTQIA+ characters and situations, the other an educational institution for students under 18, the two Cabarets underscore what connects them: a preoccupation with theatre’s ability to communicate and provoke a political commentary.
Where Pandora modeled its rendition on the 1998 revival and its more lurid snapshot of the decadence essential in the story, director Seth Lieber has here conjured up a more stylish and elegant vintage aesthetic emblematic of 1930’s Hollywood. Imagine Fred Astaire as the MC.
That Neill Robertson plays the Master of Ceremonies is a selling point, and Robertson is brilliant. He plays and teases with the audience with a saucy impertinence that makes the first half a fizzy delight. If you don’t know where the story is going, you might mistake this for a very different kind of show.
But where the character is often portrayed as somewhat removed from the main narrative, Robertson transitions throughout the evening, reacting to the action and the developing emotional turmoil along with the audience. It is a fascinating exercise in dramatic empathy.
The risk is that Robertson will overwhelm the rest of the production, and while he does dominate, the work surrounding him is also excellent. Mera Kathryn Corlett is a charismatic Sally Bowles, and if her voice doesn’t quite reach the vocal power we’ve come to anticipate for the role (blame Liza Minnelli) her phrasing and delivery are crafted with care and, crucially, firmly grounded in character. As her love affair with the American writer Clifford Bradshaw develops, played with solid intelligence by Jonathan Patrick O’Brien, it doesn’t stand apart from the songs but is reinforced by them.
All of the performances are rooted in the emotions of the character. In the other, equally important romantic relationship, Clifford’s landlady, Fräulein Schneider (Jennifer Pennington) and fruit merchant Herr Schultz (Tim Mathistad), sing one of the goofiest but most endearing love songs ever written, “It Couldn’t Please Me More” with an abundance of charm, but once again, the impact draws from the observant work of two fine actors.
Hallie Dizdarevic is also very good as Fräulein Ludwig, Clifford’s first friend in Berlin and written as a man. The gender-swap plays in part because of the fierce conviction of her performance but let’s be honest – symbols matter, and even with material this familiar, I won’t give it away. Annie Givan Smith is fair comic relief as prostitute Fräulein Kost but then plays a role in the plot that is not at all funny.
Musical Director John Austin Clark provides a tight but flavorful arrangement of the score, although the band keeps hidden behind a scrim, robbing us of the characteristic reveal of the Kit Kat Club Orchestra in all their lurid glory.
One number is also cut, “Two Ladies”, and whether owing to time and pacing or to the flip manner in which it imagines a domestic ménage a Trois, I cannot say, but all other allusions to same-sex alliances remain intact, including the delicious androgyny of Robertson’s Master of Ceremonies.
In his program notes, Lieber shies away from forcing comparisons with today’s America, yet it is impossible to avoid. When Robertson sings “If You Could See Her”, the use of a gorilla costume is indeed comical, but it also reminds us of how frequently throughout history the subjugation of another race has included characterizing them as something less than human. Think President Obama depicted as a monkey or the current occupant of the White House describing immigrants crossing the southern border as “animals” more times than we can tally.
For all of these reasons, this Cabaret ends feeling a punch in the gut. Any audience member that doesn’t need a moment to recover from the terrifying final moments should question their humanity.
Of course, this is why a show like Cabaret, in the way of all great theatre, stands the test of time. We can all find ourselves in this story, even if we risk feeling ashamed of exactly who we identify with.
Featuring Neill Robertson, Mera Kathryn Corlett, Jonathan Patrick O’Brien, Hallie Dizdarevic, Jennifer Pennington, Annie Givan Smith, Tim Mathistad, Shannon Austin-Goodin, Makayla Roth, Kaylee Johnson, Lilly Stanley, Sara Seim, Ruairidh Kerr, & Connor Madison
Nancy Sexton Stage
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.
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