Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in 1931, Cabaret begins as American novelist Clifford Bradshaw arrives in Berlin to begin work on his novel. At the decadent Berlin nightclub, the Kit Kat Klub, he meets the club's headliner Sally Bowles who convinces Cliff to let her move in with him, even though they have just met, and together they form an interesting living relationship. Cliff's sweet-natured landlady, the German Fräulein Schneider forms a relationship of her own with the adorable and charming Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz.
The action plays out against musical sequences set inside the gritty Kit Kat Klub where the mischievous Emcee oversees the proceedings of its carefree customers while Hitler's rise to power is happening just outside its doors. Unfortunately, the carefree Sally, and many other Germans, believe that they have nothing to worry about, and she lives her life like it is a never-ending cabaret.
Bookwriter Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander, and lyricist Fred Ebb based this musical on both Christopher Isherwood's 1939 novel "Goodbye to Berlin," which told stories of his time living in Berlin in 1930, and John Van Druten's 1951 theatrical adaptation of the novel, I Am a Camera. Arizona Theatre Company presents the updated version of the show, which Sam Mendes directed in London, Broadway, and on tour, featuring songs from the 1972 Oscar-winning film adaptation and more fully incorporating the Emcee into the show as a way to brilliantly comment on the actions of the characters and the atrocities of what is about to happen to them.
Director Sara Bruner has found a talented cast and her dramatic scenes are staged and acted well. However, the overall production concept and set design are odd, are never truly focused, and often serve as a distraction to the plot. A small chandelier that is never used, two scaffolding staircases with string lights wrapped around the metal pieces, and two tilted steel ceiling trestles that hang over the stage are just some of the oddities in Kris Stone's scenic design. I never got any sense of a decadent night club or a makeshift boarding house on the vast Herberger stage and from the myriad of metal set elements. There is also a giant sparkly Mylar curtain that is used for the backdrop of many of the scenes set in Schneider's boarding house which is highly distractive. Are we supposed to believe that those scenes are performance pieces set inside the Kit Kat Klub? Also, Bruner has cast a man as one of the women in the Kit Kat Klub chorus line and a woman in one of the male chorus roles, yet those casting choices are never fleshed out. I understand that the need to use your imagination can be one of the key components of a live theatre production and that realistic sets are not needed to effectively take the audience on a journey to another time and place, but Bruner and Stone's concept seems to simply throw several theatrical concepts in the air, with the hope of bringing a new and original concept that is nothing like the Tony-winning and long-running Mendes production or the original Hal Prince directed production that used a giant mirror pitched toward the audience to reflect them as they entered the theatre, but the problem is that nothing sticks.
For anyone who has never seen Mendes' chilling theatrical version or the Bob Fosse directed film, the strength of the material and the ATC cast help to overcome most of the missteps in the direction and production concept. Madison Micucci and Brandon Espinoza are both excellent as Sally and Clifford. Micucci is appropriately animated, talkative and excitable as the shocking, carefree and mysterious Sally, while Espinoza brings a lovely sense of sincerity, charm and warmth to Clifford.
Lori Wilner and David Kelly are equally good as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Wilner is heartbreaking as the realistic German woman who has learned what she has to do in order to survive, no matter what the circumstances. Her delivery of "What Would You Do?" is especially riveting. Kelly is sweet yet somewhat sad as Schultz. When he comments that he believes he'll be fine no matter what happens with Hitler because he's a German, it's hard to not feel for the character. Michelle Dawson and D. Scott Withers provide ample support in two supporting roles.
As the Emcee, Sean Patrick Doyle has an excellent singing voice and superb stage presence but, even though he is incorporated more into the action of the plot in this version of the script, from the direction you never truly feel that he is being used as a way to string the scenes together and to invite us into the action. He simply is a participant in those scenes and nothing more.
I understand that a director wants to put their own stamp on a production and to not copy what another director has done before, but I missed the intense emotional impact of the ending in Mendes' Broadway revival. However, even though there are several missteps in this production, Cabaret is still an impactful show that is, unfortunately, still relevant todaybut that is more to do with the characters, scenes and songs Masteroff, Kander and Ebb created than what Bruner has done with this production.
Cabaret runs through January 26, 2020, at Arizona Theatre Company with performances at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.arizonatheatre.org or call 602-2566995.
Director: Sara Bruner
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.