Stage Left’s production of CABARET at the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton ended with a much deserved standing ovation. I must admit it is that good.
There were standout performances in acting and singing, directing, choreography and even costumes and make-up. The “Kit Kat girls” were a good mix of body types–all beautiful, of course. I especially liked the “extra” one in the second Act.
Jennie Knacksteadt shows what it is to fully immerse herself in a show’s character as “Sally Bowles;” her acting and singing range continues to amaze me since I first saw her in THE LAST FIVE YEARS.
I knew that Josh Bessinger was a last-minute stand-in for “The Emcee,” and he was unbeschreiblich (unbelievable in a good way). Bravo for stepping in with such a dynamic, right-on performance.
The emcee sets the tone for the show, and his presence and naturalness in the role makes the play a success or not. Bessinger definitely succeeds beyond expectations, and his success begins with the emcee’s character. His choice was the perfect balance for this production and his “special” way of moving allowed him to enter into any scene in the Kit Kat Club or elsewhere as though he belonged there–at least in theatrical terms audiences accept.
The role, as played by Joel Grey, the first two times on Broadway, “was an asexual, malevolent character in a tuxedo with rouged cheeks.” Believe it or not, his character was the less “dramatic” sexual choice. The other character choice often seen in this show is more overtly sexual, if you can believe it possible. That one is found in the ’98 revival. “Alan Cumming‘s portrayal was highly sexualized, wearing suspenders (i.e. braces) around his crotch and red paint on his nipples.” I find the more overt behavior draws too much attention to itself and takes away from the rest of the show.
Every actor was a standout in his or her own right. Ian Kimble was a great choice for “Clifford Bradshaw,” the American novelist who comes to Berlin to find something to write about. Anne Buckwheat was truly terrific as “Fraulein Schneider.” She and John Blackwell, (“Herr Schultz”), made a perfect pair. Although I might have made Herr Schultz more German than Jew, I didn’t mind the way Blackwell did it. It worked and that’s the important thing. And, they both were fine in the singing department. Buckwheat and Blackwell played their roles grimly realistically in perfect contrast to the fantasy.
Craig Hutchings as “Ernst Ludwig” is another actor who never disappoints in either singing or acting. He shined as the friendly German smuggler who uses Cliff, and then shows the lie he lives as his politics reveal themselves. Rachel Pinkstone-Marx as “Fraulein Kost” was a knock-out both visually, and in acting/singing; her presence ruled the stage when she was a focus. That can also be said of Anne Buckwheat (“Fraulein Schneider”).
CABARET tells the story well in a rather non-traditional way. Today, we see it as more traditional in its approach than when it first came out. It began as most artistic endeavors–a little over-the-top and a little wrong in some ways. In this case, they found the book written by Joe Masteroff, a Philadelphia-born playwright, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb that started everything on the path to success. Unfortunately, after all his success with CABARET, Masteroff’s next and final Broadway effort, 70, was a resounding flop.
CABARET is one of those atypical shows that despite its subject matter is able to lift people up and affect them in ways only good theatre art can do. Although the play makes you immediately uncomfortable sitting anxiously, not because it takes place during Hitler’s rise to power, but because you find yourself immediately thrust into the decadent atmosphere of the cabaret. From the tuxedo-ed, rouge-cheeked emcee, scantily-clad Kit Kat girls, and cross-dressed boys sashaying around the stage to the real world outside where people create their own fantasy world without the Kit Kat Club, you begin to see this play is about something bigger than “boy gets girl,” “boy loses girl”–and its wonderful.
It was wonderful enough to last three runs on Broadway, with the 1998 revival lasting five years (and that’s with the more bizarre emcee). It is the third longest running play on Broadway. Not bad for a play that shocked initial audiences with its lack of preamble (overture) and stage of mirrors. Hal Prince was the original director, and his staging was considered unusual for the time. In CABARET, dialogue scenes are juxtaposed with songs used as exposition and separate cabaret numbers provide social commentary.
I have to admit there was one “huh” moment. The Tomorrow Belongs to Me number with the solo “Voice of Hitler Youth” didn’t work for me. Thinking back on it now, I wonder if a boy in Hitler Youth uniform actually singing to the audience might have helped, but I also realize the practical reason for not doing it that way. For that reason, let’s keep that in the “that hardly deserves mention” column.
There is some stage fighting that I didn’t care for either. I can understand using the cymbals in the Kit Kat Club; it even covers the lack of hitting sounds. Even so, if ever there was a time for realism in this play, it has to be when there is violence because it emphasizes the fear that follows the denial and uncertainty of the period. It needs to be strong enough to be felt by the audience. A blackout maybe, realistic grunts and the swastikas on the ceiling? Same goes for when Cliff slaps Sally as well. How could he do that? It is more a realization for him and he is horrified that he has been “driven” to that by the environment. If the slap is wimpy, so’s the moment. If he starts to slap and it’s big enough–that can make do…
But everyone who loves theatre should experience a production that is this well done to truly appreciate the drama (yes, I said drama), the atmosphere, and the lives of its characters. There is time to laugh, too, and enjoy the ribald antics, the beautiful girls, the delightful, fun-loving Sally Bowles and the naive, lost Cliff Bradshaw, and time to cry over the real lives of the people who lived the chaos of the time.
It was a complicated time for any and many people–especially those living in Germany at the time. People said, “wait,” “it’s only politics,” but we all know it became much worse than ever imagined. Was it because people lived in denial, living for the day, pulled by a fantasy world–a different kind of extremism? I don’t know, but CABARET, the musical does a great job of telling the story; this fine Stage Left production does a professional job presenting it. Wunderbar! Really!
Book by Joe Masterhoff
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
August 12-27, 2011
Stage Left Productions
at The Eagle Theatre
208 Vine Street
Hammonton NJ 08037