Also see Richard's review of Jesus Christ Superstar
Stages St. Louis has opened its 20th anniversary season with a powerful and polished production of the John Kander-Fred Ebb masterpiece, Cabaret. Already a dark show, this tale of unhappy love among the exotic fauna of Berlin on the cusp of the Nazi era gets an even harder reading than usual from director Michael Hamilton and his design team. The set by Mark Halpin is a work of art, a multi-story interior that makes ingenious use of the available space, reflecting not only the ponderous architecture but the gray institutional spirit of that long-ago Berlin, and shifting easily, with the movement of a piece of furniture or two, from the gaudy Kit-Kat Club to a down-at-the-heels boarding house to a fruit and vegetable shop. It is perhaps the best crafted set Stages has yet put before an audience. Lou Bird’s costumes are equally clever in concept – just racy enough to help give the show its sardonic edge while avoiding overt obscenity – and beautifully fitted and sewn. The lighting by Matthew McCarthy is expressive and dramatically effective, especially in the final scenes.
This is not your mother’s Cabaret. Sally Bowles, played to the hilt by the magnificent Jayne Paterson, is as tough and mean-spirited as a semi-prostitute would have to be to survive in the midst of such decadence and squalor, and when a hint of her vulnerability does surface as she dreams of escape, it is snuffed out with efficient brutality. Miss Paterson sings too well for the part – if Sally Bowles were really that good, she would indeed be a headliner in a reputable joint – but she builds her character as much with movement as with words, and the impact is quite often breathtaking. David Schmittou, as Cliff, has all he can do to hold the stage with Miss Paterson, but he gives a stalwart reading of what is almost a thankless role, having to anchor the story while sandwiched between Sally Bowles and the Master of Ceremonies. Interestingly, Cliff’s bisexuality is more explicit in this production than in Stages’ previous version or in the movie (as I recall); it plays here a significant part in Sally’s crucial decision.
As the Master of Ceremonies, David Elder, like Miss Paterson making his debut with Stages, is a brilliant and powerful force. The part calls for a virtuoso who can sing, dance, and command the stage, and Mr. Elder delivers on all three counts. His dexterity and balance are impeccable, his voice is clear, accurate, and expressive, and his ability to modulate his physical presence by almost imperceptible degrees from the over-the-top glamour of his opening number to the utter pathos of the character in the show’s stunning final scene is marvelous.
The inimitable Zoe Vonder Haar gives an energetic and beautifully sung reading of Fraulein Schneider, and John Alban Coughlan, as the unfortunate Herr Schultz, is a good match for her. Other standouts in a fine cast include Jeffrey C. Wolfe as the sleazy Ernst Ludwig, Kari Ely in a charming turn as Fraulein Kost, the big-hearted hooker, and Ben Nordstrom, who does double duty as the elfin Rudy and the gorilla with the flirtatious eyes.
Saving the best for last, the choreography for this production, by Dana Lewis and Kelli Barclay, is by an order of magnitude the most ingeniously conceived, most aesthetically pleasing, and most meticulously and energetically executed I have seen in twenty years of enjoying their work.
All in all, this version of Cabaret is an absorbing and powerful evening of theater, and if we in the audience, recalling its swirling emotions in tranquility, are moved to ask ourselves why we were so ready to laugh at the decadence or the racist jokes, or why we found “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” both chilling and evocative, well, that is perhaps what Kander and Ebb intended all along.
Cabaret will continue through July 2 at the Robert G. Reim Theater in Kirkwood; ticket information is available at 314-821-2407.