Also see Ann's review of The Muckle Man
It's always a welcome occasion when the Public presents a musical in the intimate O'Reilly Theatre, and an added bonus when Ted Pappas is directing. Currently, in the O'Reilly Theatre, almost everything is beautiful in this brassy and polished production of Cabaret.
From Christopher Isherwood's 1935 publication The Berlin Stories, to John Van Druten's 1951 play I Am A Camera, to Joe Masteroff's book for the 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret, to Jay Presson Allen's screenplay for the 1972 film of the musical, through revivals and numerous regional productions, the story of Sally Bowles (Tari Kelly) has proved to be relevant, poignant and entertaining for over seventy years. It is a glimpse at a brief portion of Sally's life in 1930s Berlin that is the heart of Cabaret. She is an in-the-moment, fun-loving British singer, at times childlike, at other times a hardened broad. And she is surrounded by a cast of characters who join together to evoke the last vestiges of reckless decadence as fear creeps into Berlin by way of the Nazi regime. The focus is primarily on Sally's relationship with American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Daniel Krell), but there is so much going on around the couple, both in the local and national arena, the show shifts focus frequently to other characters as they react to the increasingly opressive outside forces.
Sally performs in the Kit Kat Club and, quickly after meeting Cliff, she moves in with him at a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (Brooks Almy), a matron whose friendship with a Jewish grocer, boarder Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson), is growing into romance. Also living in the boarding house is Fraulein Kost (Lenora Nemetz) whose "friendships" with many sailors turn a sufficient profit. A portion of Cabaret is literally a cabaret show; the Emcee (Harris Doran) and the Kit Kat Girls (Leasen Almquist, Renee Monique Brown, Diana Michelle Griffith, Stephanie Lynn Nelson, Carol Schuberg) offer musical amusements and enjoy one last frantic burst of hedonism before the tyranny to come.
Tall and lanky Tari Kelly mines the impulsive and candid nature of Sally. She has a strong and stunning voice; her singing of "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret" are forceful. However, there are other layers in the character, such as vulnerability and fear, that could be hinted at more strongly, particularly in "Cabaret." Daniel Krell, one of Pittsburgh's journeymen actors, provides an earnest and focused performance, but I never felt I really saw Cliff come to life. It's not an easy role, as Cliff is often merely an observer, and there is a sexual ambiguity that doesn't play out completely. Neither Kelly nor Krell drops the ball completely, but the strength of the supporting cast is what really carries this production.
Brooks Almy accomplishes the task of showing Fraulein Schneider's sweetness as well as her will to survive. She knows what she must do to keep herself safe, though she is torn by a desire to follow her heart. Scott Robertson has a gentleness of spirit that makes one warm immediately to Herr Schultz. Robertson has played the part in other productions, including on Broadway, and his comfort shows as he fully fleshes out this character without showing any sign of complacency. He has a beautiful voice with a smooth vibrato, and his songs with Almy - "It Couldn't Please Me More," "Married" and "What Would You Do?" - represent the most heartfelt character moments in the show. Lenora Nemetz takes Fraulein Kost to a new level, as a mischievous and jaded "working woman" - her playful but seasoned flirtation shows she is giving the young sailors their money's worth. She really adds a spark to the production.
Ernst Ludwig (played splendidly by Carrington Vilmont) is the thread that ties together all of the other characters: he meets Cliff on the train into Berlin, introduces him to the Kit Kat Club (where Cliff meets Sally), provides Cliff with a job, brings the outside dangers into the Club, and is the trigger that leads to Fraulein Schneider's doubts about marrying Herr Schultz. Ernst is rigid and guarded; he clearly knows there are sides to be taken and has unyielding conviction to the side he has chosen. It is easy to see why he is befriended at first, yet he effectively adds a chill to the festivities as his true colors emerge.
Ensemble players Nicholas Ardell, Joseph Domencic, Greg Roderick and Marcus Stevens are amazing as they portray entertainers, sailors, waiters and Nazis, with quick costume changes and refreshing mini-characterizations.
In this production, as in the most most recent Broadway production, the Emcee and the Kit Kat Girls add an overtly sexual atmosphere. In costume, dance and gesture, they are salacious and bawdy. Harris Doran tackles the role of the Emcee with an exhilaration and energy that is palpable. He guides the production without taking over. In open tuxedo jacket with bow tie askew, leather chaps and jockstrap, and fishnet sleeves, he bares nearly all as he prances around the three-sided stage, getting as close as possible to the audience as he sets the stage immediately with the opening song "Willkommen." The Girls join in and show, here and throughout the show, an adept skill for performing Ted Pappas's impressive choreography on the very small stage. A diverse mix of physical types, the five dancer/singer/actresses are well cast and fun to watch. Doran and the Girls provide the appropriate cabaret atmosphere with an element of desperation.
John Kander and Fred Ebb's score is in fine hands with this cast; their performance of these classic songs - not over-miked (thank you, sound man Zach Moore) - is worth the ticket price of a ticket.
As expected, the physical production is excellent. On James Noone's set, the dreary ruin of a club, with upturned chairs and fallen neon sign comes to life as the sign is raised and lit and the balcony curtain opens to present the terrific orchestra, led by F. Wade Russo (and a hot little number he is in drag). The eight-piece ensemble provide lively and full accompaniment throughout the evening, and their Entr'acte got a deserved energetic round of applause. Set pieces around the balcony and a series of doors beneath are practical and efficient as, once again, the most is made of the O'Reilly's modest stage. Kirk Bookman's lighting is equally well accomplished, and costumes by David R. Zyla are sensational.
Ted Pappas directs his cast well and keeps the pace as steady as possible, working with the lengthy first act and swift second.
As a complete package, this Cabaret is satisfying, and some aspects are extraordinary. There are dark overtones, but it's a brighter Cabaret than some recent productions.
Cabaret continues through February 25 at the O'Reilly Theatre. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org or the box office.