What Cabaret had and continued to have in revivals was eye-opening productions. Harold Prince's original was one of his best, a concept that implicated the American audience as silent participants in the Holocaust. At a time when Holocaust survivors conspicuously lived among us, such an implication was at the same time disquieting and liberating to theatregoers. Bob Fosse's 1972 film version proved to be a star vehicle for Liza Minnelli, and her iconic performance as Sally Bowles (a secondary character in the stage version) made anyone who'd want to sing those songs think twice. In fact, when director Sam Mendes planned a British revival in 1993, he rethought the show, used portions from the film that weren't in the original, and deliberately cast Natasha Richardson, an actress not known for her singing, as Sally Bowles. To the extent Cabaret is great, then, relies heavily on the skill of its director to reinterpret and make it fresh.
Enter Sean Murray, Cygnet Theatre's artistic director. While Mr. Murray has directed a number of excellent revivals of musicals (last year's Sweeney Todd, and Pageant, some years ago), he has also staged revivals (e.g., My Fair Lady, A Little Night Music) that have been solid but no more than that. The "solid but no more" Mr. Murray is the one directing Cygnet's Cabaret, which runs through May 15 at the company's Old Town Theatre.
Mr. Murray's staging mostly conforms to the pattern set by other revivals except for two somewhat odd innovations. First, there is a pre-show, starting about 15 minutes before curtain, where costumed cast members perform and then lead the audience in the style of German beer hall entertainment in singing the familiar "Ja, Das Ist Eine Schnitzelbank." There's help in the program with the words, and you should get it easily if you're facile with German pronunciations. If you're not, you might struggle a little. While audience participation might be fine, where German beer hall entertainment fits into Cabaret, however, evades me.
In the second innovation, Mr. Murray has cast Karson St. John as the Emcee. Ms. St. John is a fine actress and has portrayed a number of charismatic and powerful characters, including her award-winning Diane, the Hollywood agent at the center of Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed. And, the idea might well work, in terms of previous productions of Cabaret, where the Emcee is the only male in an all-female world (even the band is beautiful). That's not the case here, though: the band is all-male and perched above the stage, and one of the women in the ensemble is portrayed by a man (Tony Houck) in drag. So, having Ms. St. John play the Emcee amounts to non-traditional casting, with no deeper significance. Ms. St. John gamely does her best, but frankly she looks ridiculous imitating a man, as she has been directed and choreographed (by David Brannen) to do in the early scenes. The masquerade works better later on, when the Emcee's role becomes darker.
Without a strong central concept, the cast is left to play the text and sing the songs, and they do so very capably. Joy Yandell's approach to the character of Sally Bowles moves her out of the spotlight and back to the supporting position afforded her by the script, so competition with Liza is no problem. Cabaret is, after all, based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, and the leading character in the story ought to be Clifford Bradshaw (Charlie Reuter), the Isherwood stand-in. But, the character is written to reflect what is around him, and Mr. Reuter ably does so. Shining in Clifford's camera are fellow boarding house residents Herr Schultz (Jim Chovick), Fraulein Schneider (Linda Libby), and Fraulein Kost (Melissa Fernandes), as well as Ernst Ludwig (Jason Heil), Clifford's mysterious patron. Each of these performers turns in detailed and affecting portrayals and earns the positive receptions the audience gives them at the curtain call.
Likewise, the crew at the Kit-Kat Club (Joyelle Cabato, Marlene Montes, Rose O'Hara, Katie Whalley, and Mr. Houck) dance Mr. Brannen's sexy choreography with verve, and Jacob Caltrider, Andy Collins, and Eric Hellmers in various smaller roles bring strong male voices to balance the women's singing.
Still, the production allows its audiences to do something that Mr. Prince would have never allowedsit back, relax, and take it all in without becoming more involved. There is no coup de theatre (it was mirrors in the original) to bring the audience into the action. By 2011, Americans are no longer culpable for the Holocaust, and that's a shame.
Cygnet Theatre Company presents Cabaret, through May 15 at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego. Tickets ($29-$54) available by calling the box office at (619) 337-1525 or by visiting the Cygnet Theatre website.
Cabaret, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Joe Masteroff. Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood. Directed by Sean Murray, with Music Director Billy Thompson, Choreographer David Brannen, Designer Sean Fanning, Costume Designer Shirley Pierson, Wig & Make Designer Peter Herman, Sound Designer Matt Lescault-Wood and George Ye, Lighting Designer Chris Rynne, Properties Designer, Bonnie Durben, Stage Manager Heather Brose, and Dramaturg Kim Strassburger.
With Karson St. John (The Emcee), Joy Yandell (Sally Bowles), Charlie Reuter (Clifford Bradshaw), Linda Libby (Fraulein Schneider), Jim Chovick (Herr Schultz), Melissa Fernandes (Fraulein Kost), Jason Heil (Ernst Ludwig), Jacob Caltrider (Bobby), Joyelle Cabato (Rosie), Andy Collins (Max/Officer/Sailor/Dancer), Eric Hellmers (Victor/Sailor), Tony Houck (Helga), Marlene Montes (Frenchie), Rose O'Hara (Texas), and Katie Whalley (Fritzie).
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