Story: To paraphrase protagonist Clifford Bradshaw, “there was a place called The Kit Kat Klub in a city called Berlin in a country called Germany…and we were all fast asleep.” Bradshaw, an American novelist wannabe, has traveled to Europe in 1929 in search of his muse, first in London, then in Paris and now in Berlin.
He meets a German businessman named Ernst Ludwig on the train to Berlin, who gives him the name of a landlady named Fraulein Schneider. The impoverished Cliff reaches an agreement with Schneider on the price of a room and heads to the provocative German nightclub, The Kit Kat Klub, for New Year’s Eve.
There he meets an English chanteuse named Sally Bowles, a free-wheeling torch singer who openly embraces the decadence of German society with nary a thought about politics or the creeping, insidious influence of the growing National Socialist Party. Rising intolerance towards Jews and others deemed ‘undesirable’ by the Nazis unsettles Cliff as he tries to save Sally from an impending world of intolerance, hatred and mass murder.
Highlights: Cabaret is a show with a rich pedigree that continues to impress. Christopher Isherwood’s book, The Berlin Stories, was adapted into a play titled I Am a Camera that in turn evolved into the musical Cabaret, which won eight Tony Awards in 1967 (and eight Oscars for its 1972 film version). It tells a fascinating, troubling story courtesy of an impressive book by Joe Masteroff, with lyrics by Fred Ebb and music by John Kander.
Stray Dog Theatre’s current rendition is inspired by the 1998 Roundabout Theatre revival at New York City’s Studio 54 that was based on a 1993 West End revival which incorporated tunes from the movie in a more daring version than the original. That’s a good choice by director Justin Been, since this racier, more tuneful rendition blends the best of both worlds (Broadway and film) in a superior presentation that retains both the menace and message of the original.
Other Info: Although benefiting from the talents of many expert performers, the true star of Stray Dog’s interpretation is director Been. He (along with artistic director Gary Bell) places his stamp firmly on this production with both subtle and direct touches that accentuate the reckless abandon that permeated German society between the two world wars of the 20th century.
Even as you enter the Tower Grove Abbey, you’re likely to be ‘welcomed’ by the roving bands of Kit Kat girls and boys, who continue to intersperse with the audience throughout both acts and the intermission, too. Been also shows the uneasy but steadily encroaching oppression to come by interjecting the show’s sexually ambiguous Emcee, played to the hilt in grand and lusty style by Lavonne Byers, in Cliff’s apartment or seemingly anywhere the American writer wanders in Berlin.
There’s also a very clever arrangement of Kander’s infectious music by musical and vocal director Chris Petersen, who even includes a banjo in the most surprising of locations (the title song, if memory serves).
His band, dressed appropriately for the risqué Kit Kat Klub by costume designer Alexandra Scibetta Quigley, includes accordion (!) player Steve Wozniak, Adam Rugo on the banjo and guitar, Kevin Baudrexl on bass, Petersen himself at the keyboard, percussionist Bob McMahon, reed player Harrison Rich, trumpeter Andrew Lane, trombonist Gabe Mueller and violinist Steve Frisbee, all perched precariously on the second level of Robert Lippert’s intriguing set.
That design incorporates a pair of handsome era paintings on either side at the top of the two-tiered set, which also features a spiral staircase utilized by the players throughout, as they spill out into the audience from time to time. Prop designers Been and Jay Hall even found a vintage phonograph that ‘plays’ a scratchy rendition of Tomorrow Belongs to Me wistfully heard by the Emcee.
Tyler Duenow’s lighting runs the gamut from the garish tint at the club to more intimate moments in Cliff’s room. Dialect coach Daniel Blackwell experiences varying success with his German accents, depending upon the player, while Zachary Stefaniak’s choreography is highlighted in the green-hued Money Song.
Impressive in the cast are Deborah Sharn as the street-walking Fraulein Kost, Ken Haller as the gentle Jewish merchant Herr Schultz and Paula Stoff Dean as the live-for-the-moment Sally. After fumbling her first number in an uncomfortable range, Dean displayed a soaring and sumptuous voice that wrung the emotions out of Sally’s tunes, such as Perfectly Marvelous and the title tune.
Sharn and Haller both display fine voices and sharp, pointed interpretations of their characters. Byers, as mentioned earlier, is a treat all her own vamping her way with the Emcee’s decadent, mocking style, while Michael Brightman is good as the deceptively villainous Ernst.
Paul Cereghino as Cliff seemed to be thrown off by the tornado sirens on opening night, frequently rushing lines and hesitating in crucial moments, which hopefully will improve during the show’s run. Keith Thompson is OK in the bit role of Sally’s nasty boss, Max. Jan Niehoff, though, was disappointing on opening night with her singing as Fraulein Schneider, although her portrayal of the long-suffering landlady was alright. A silly wig didn’t help.
With tweaks here and there, Been’s brilliant Cabaret might be even better before its already popular run concludes.
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: April 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or www.StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb