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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Spotlight Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Verdict, The Graduate, Life Could Be a Dream, and Show Boat

Aaron Brown and Sophia Donnell
Photo by Joanne Wastchak
In a world in which the horrific results of racial and religious prejudice are still top news stories, the fifty-year-old musical Cabaret, which tells the story of the citizens of Berlin in the early 1930s facing the rise of Hitler, still makes for a potent, provocative and cautionary lesson for current times. Spotlight Youth Theatre's production is another stunning example of Kenny Grossman's expert directorial abilities and the amount of amazing youth talent in the Valley.

Set in the gritty, decadent Berlin nightclub the Kit Kat Klub, Cabaret follows the story of American novelist Clifford Bradshaw who has just arrived in Berlin to begin work on his novel and the desperate and recently homeless English Kit Kat Klub headliner Sally Bowles, who convinces Cliff to let her move in with him. The two form an interesting living relationship even though they have just met. Cliff's sweet-natured landlady, the German Früulein Schneider, forms a relationship of her own with the adorably charming Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz. The mischievous Emcee oversees the actions at the club while the customers are both carefree and clueless to the unimaginable terror that the rising Nazi regime is beginning to create right outside the Kit Kat Klub doors.

The musical is based on Christopher Isherwood's 1939 novel "Goodbye to Berlin" that told stories of his time living in Berlin around 1930, including featuring the character of Sally Bowles, and John Van Druten's 1951 theatrical adaptation of the novel, I Am a Camera. Bookwriter Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander, and lyricist Fred Ebb beautifully combined their artistic talents to masterfully exhibit how the horrors that are about to come, and the desperation of the era, portray people who are unable to comprehend the consequence of just what Hitler's power will have on Germany and ultimately the whole world. The score features numerous showstopping numbers and the version of the musical that Spotlight is presenting is the more recent one that director Sam Mendes presented in London and on Broadway to great acclaim. That version also added in some numbers written for the 1972 film adaptation and also incorporates the character of the Emcee more fully into the action of the play, to comment on numerous scenes and the actions of the other characters.

Director Kenny Grossman has found an expert cast to portray these characters with almost every one of them creating realistic individuals that are heartbreaking, refined, and immediately identifiable. His direction moves us from the Kit Kat Klub to scenes set inside the boardinghouse and other locations in a seamless cinematic fashion on a static, simple, yet highly effective set that he and Michael Armstrong designed. The cast is composed of actors aged 15-19 who do very well in evoking characters who are older due to Grossman's assured direction. There are only a few very brief moments (a line that is rushed or screamed or not quite delivered the way an older person would say it) when the actors slightly go against the naturalness of their portrayals. But these moments are rare in a production with a cast that truly is some of the best teen talent in the Valley.

In her Spotlight debut, Sophia Donnell is a knock-out as Sally. Sally lives her life like it's a neverending cabaret and with an English accent that is good and consistent throughout, Donnell embodies the carefree, careless, distracted and self-obsessed nature of Sally with a heightened sense of recklessness. Her singing voice is sublime (even though Sally is not supposed to be the greatest singer) and she even provides some spirited dance moves in the club group numbers. Her two solos, "Maybe This Time" and the title number, are exact opposites in how they are delivered, but through Donnell's excellent delivery, they beautifully show a woman who suddenly realizes her shortcomings and her place in the world. With acting choices that are smart and full of clarity and determination and a rawness that she brings to the part every time she's on stage, Donnell's performance is one of the best I've seen in a youth production this season.

Vincent Pugliese is cunning, lovable, fearless, scary, and forcefully commanding as the Emcee. His singing voice is used well on his many songs, with a German accent that grounds the part in realism. His playful nature draws your attention yet he also adds a stunning poignancy to both the ballad "I Don't Care Much" and to the emotionally disturbing final scene. As Cliff, Aaron Brown evokes the realistic sincerity of a young writer as well as an appropriate level of both hesitancy and recklessness once Sally comes into his life. Brown's ability to portray the shifting tones and conflicted nature of Cliff while also believably playing a character who is several years older than his actual age is quite remarkable.

Lily Swope and Joseph Cavazos instill a lovely tenderness between Schneider and Schultz with both also delivering rich vocals on their songs. Swope's "What Would You Do?" is infused with emotion and a deep sense of pain and regret. As Ernst, the German who involves Cliff in some political intrigue, Jack Taylor's German accent is as excellent as his chilling portrayal, while Jasmine Bassham evokes just the right level of playful cunningness and a shrewd business sense to Früulein Kost.

Tina Caspary-Cyphert's highly energetic choreography is delivered well, especially in how the ensemble members aren't exactly in sync, which works splendidly as it makes the dancers at the Kit Kat Klub seem as tired and run down as the club itself. Samantha Essary Utpadel's costumes and Trey DeGroodt's hair and make-up designs create both the gritty looks for the Kit Kat Klub dancers and the refinement of Schneider and Schultz—the hickeys and bruises on the Kit Kat girls are a nice touch. Josh Hontz's lighting and sound designs provide a pinpoint clarity for both the focus of each scene and to the dialogue and lyrics. Music director Ken Goodenberger and conductor Tristan Peterson-Steinert achieve some excellent sounds from the six-piece band made up of young, skilled musicians in their teens or early 20s.

With an excellent cast and superb direction, Spotlight's Cabaret is especially potent and shocking. It is a production that explodes with grit and glamour, while also being raw and realistic in portraying the immediacy and heartbreaking horrors of Nazism. Some people don't think a youth theatre should present shows that have serious, adult themes like Cabaret, but when it's done with such honesty and emotion it's hard to argue why they shouldn't.

Spotlight Youth Theatre's production of Cabaret runs through January 28th, 2018, with performances at 10620 N 43rd Avenue in Glendale AZ. Tickets and information can be found at or by calling 602.843.8318

Director: Kenny Grossman
Musical Director: Ken Goodenberger
Choreographer: Tina Caspary-Cyphert
Costume Design: Samantha Essary Utpadel
Hair and Make-Up: Trey DeGroodt
Set Design: Michael Armstrong & Kenny Grossman
Lighting & Sound Design: Josh Hontz

Emcee: Vincent Pugliese
Sally Bowles: Sophia Donnell
Clifford Bradshaw: Aaron Brown
Früulein Schneider: Lily Swope
Herr Schultz: Joseph Cavazos
Ernst Ludwig: Jack Taylor
Früulein Kost/ Fritzie: Jasmine Bassham
Rosie: Maya Weber
Lulu: Falin Ossipinsky
Frenchie/Gorilla: Phoenix Cyphert
Texas: Addison Bowman
Helga: Paige Gagliardi
Stella: Jessica Wastchak
Gretchen: Benny Cowans
Bobby: Anson Romney
Victor: Jared Barbee
Hans/Max: Christian Bader
Herman: Brody Wurr
Boy Soprano: Corban Adams

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