Monday, April 14, 2008
I saw the 5th Avenue's production of Cabaret Sunday night,
starring my beloved Nick Garrison, and I've got some things to say...
Cabaret is a Broadway musical that has a lot going for it: a great setting, (a seedy cabaret nightclub in Weimar Berlin as the Nazis come to power), two iconic roles, (Sally Bowles and the Master of Ceremonies) and some brilliant Kander and Ebb songs. It's also cursed with a clunky book by Joe Masteroff, a dud of a male protagonist, Borscht belt sidekicks whose plot line drags down the show and endless comparisons to Bob Fosse's film version which solved all the issues raised by the first three problems I listed in this sentence, (they rewrote the show, reconceived the male lead and dropped the sidekicks, their dud of a B story and their not so great songs).
Sam Mendes corrected many of the original stage show's problems in his brilliant and innovated restaging of the show in 1998 and many of those improvements have been used in subsequent productions. A few of those changes are reflected in the 5th Avenue production, but sadly, some of the most vital were not.
I'm going to lay most of the blame on the production team. This production of Cabaret is a joint venture between the 5th Avenue, the Ordway in St Paul and the American Musical Theater in San Jose and too many producers might have had their hands in the pot. But, for the most part, most of the leading production and design roles are in the hands of local Seattle artists, so I'm guessing that the 5th Avenue had the lions share of power. Tom Sturge's sets and lights are ok; nothing very innovative but nothing too derivative either. Thomas Marquez's costumes, however, are more '60's era Broadway than '30's era Weimar Berlin. I wasn't thrilled by the publicity photos I saw of the costumes and compared them to A Circus of the Star's television production circa 1978, and I wasn't far off. The overuse of the color red was a bad idea thematically, (personally, I associate red with the Nazi swastika, and why would Berlin cabaret performers be associated with Nazis? Most of the cabaret stars of that era were anti-Nazi and either fled or went underground when the Nazis came to power and many of those that didn't, were imprisioned or executed.)
And the elaborate and costly nature of the costumes worn by the Kit Kat Klub performers in this production belie the fact that this is supposed to be set in a SEEDY, THIRD RATE Berlin Cabaret, not a top line/top drawer establishment. These overly designed and elaborate costumes don't serve the play, they're only there to entertain and dazzle the middle aged surbanites who paid $70 for a ticket.
While the costumes, and to a lesser extent, the sets go the over-elaborate, over-produced route, the choreography and direction of this production goes the other way. Bob Richard's bland choreography never rises above a community theater level of professionalism, and in a show ABOUT cabaret dancers and ASSOCIATED with Bob Fosse, it's pretty criminal. You keep waiting for a big dance number to break out and it never quite happens.
And as for director Bill Berry, who's the Associate Producing Artistic Director of the 5th Avenue and its Casting Director, he seems to be at a loss at how to stage scenes effectively or dramatically, and judging by the performances of the primary actors, isn't a keen judge of how to help an actor shape and create an interesting, nuanced and textured perfomance. His lumpen staging of the Nazi anthem, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" a number meant to signify the rising power of the Nazi Party was a show stopper 2/3 of the way through Act I, but a show stopper in the bad sense of the phrase meaning that the show stops for a moment because we don't know what the hell is going on. Berry's leaden touch continues to be apparent at the opening of Act II. We get some entertaining razzmatazz from the Orchestra, and the Kit Kat Dancers and then the M.C. goes into a funny, bawdy bit intracting with the audience and then we immediately cut to a serious scene involving heartache and anti-Semitism! The segue between the two sections is awkard and clumsy and not one you would expect in a major production. His handling of the end of the show is equally leaden, with a finale that includes a very loooooong section without any dialogue, sound effects and music except for the nervous coughs of some audience members.
I can sort of forgive Berry's clumsy staging, but it's his mishandling of the actors where he is most at fault, and that I cannot forgive. Of the 5 primary actors in this production, I've seen three of them in other productions and performances and two of those actors, Nick Garrison and Suzy Hunt, who played the landlady Fraulein Schneider, I know to be excellent stage performers so I'll start with them. Garrison does a fine job as the M.C., and of the 5 main performers he comes off the best. But he does come off a little shrill in spots and can be difficult to understand; a good director would have corrected that. Suzy Hunt is a brilliant actress who specializes in grande dame type roles; she looks and sounds like a lady and is best suited for those types of roles. The problem with this production, is that Fraulein Schneider is supposed to be a lower class character; lower middle class at best. The role was originally played on Broadway by Lotte Lenya and anyone familiar with the original stories by Christopher Isherwood knows the origins of this character. Unfortunately, Miss Hunt plays the role about two or three grades above the characters station in life; she comes across as a proud Junker, the daughter of a army General when in fact she should be playing it as the poor daughter of an Army corporal or sergeant at best. Her performance is lovely, but it doesn't make much sense in the context of the show.
Her sub-plot partner is Herr Schultz, a middle aged, bachelor and fruitseller with whom Fraulein Schneider strikes up a relationship, not realizing at first that he is in fact Jewish. (They also share the dumbest song in the musical, an ode to a pineapple...) Schultz is played by Allen Fitzpatrick, a local actor I'm not familiar with, and judging by his over the top performance, not one I'm very anxious to see again. For unknown reasons, Fitzpatrick plays the part as enfeebled, quite elderly and painfully stereotypically Jewish Menschy, all actor choices that should have been kibboshed by an able director. The part is written as middle aged and not feeble and the Menschiness needs to be charming and subtle, not obvious and trite. It's the worst acting in the production and should not have been allowed by the director.
The second worst acting, of the 5 principles, is our Sally Bowles, Tari Kelly. Her one note characterization never varies, until the very end, when it flickers slightly to indicate the character's unhappiness. Her Sally is loud, icy, shallow, dull and braying. Vocally, she seems to be channelling the British actress Jane Leeves from the sitcom Frasier. Her singing is pure Broadway Belter and does no service to the songs, particularely the last number, the famous title number, Cabaret. Sam Mendes very intelligently cast good actresses who could carry a tune, but were not professional musical theater singers in his 1997 revival, a concept that made sense for a character who is NOT supposed to be a good singer. Sally Bowles is supposed to be a second rate singer in a third rate nightclub and she is supposed to be telling stories with her songs. Cabaret, the song, is a STORY, and a sad one at that and if you listen to Natasha Richardson's beautiful performance on the 1997 cast album, it all makes sense. By the end of Mendes' production, Sally Bowles was at the end of her rope. Judging by Tari Kelly's performance, the only thing her Sally Bowles is at the end of, would be the checkout line at her local Rite-Ade paying for a morning after pill, a bottle of shampoo and a copy of Hello magazine...
As for Louis Hobson's Cliff, the male lead and the stand-in for original author Christopher Isherwood, I have little to say. Mr Hobson seems to be a competent performer, but Cliff is the dullest lead in a major Broadway musical, an American doofus without dances to dance or much of a song to sing; an asexual ninny who might enjoy being a masochist. It's a miserable capon of a role to play and I pity any actor cast in it. My fondest wish for Cabaret, is that someday some Broadway bigwig has enough clout to get permission to dump the entire book for Cabaret, keep most of the songs, (but, goodbye "Pineapple Song") and rewrite it with a Chris/Cliff character who's completely out of the closet and happily sucking some German cock, one of the main reasons Isherwood moved to Berlin in the 30's...
The 5th Avenue's production of Cabaret closed last night, April 13th, and will move to St Paul, Minnesota for two weeks worth of performances at the Ordway Theater.