By Kander and Ebb
Produced by McCallum Fine Arts Academy, Royale Court Players
McCallum Arts Center, Austin
March 4, 2012
Macademy produced Kander and Ebb’s renowned “Cabaret” in their new arts center and made of it a giant party, a song festival, a design exhibition and homage to the powerful artists who staged this show in the past. Perhaps the essential stroke of genius in this play is Kander and Ebb’s setting of it in Berlin, 1931/1932, drawn from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. The potential themes on which a production could touch in “Cabaret” range from libertinism, to sexual and religious liberation/oppression to the rise of fascism. Touching on too many of them, depending on one’s resources, can give a production of “Cabaret” the feeling of a play at war with itself (What are you, “Cabaret?” Are you a historical romance, an anthology piece on club life, a musical revue, a screed on Nazis or all of these?) The Royale Court Players in their youthful enthusiasm succumbed to the play’s temptations and tried a little too much, giving us a two hour and forty minute show with one 15-minute intermission. The attempt, however, was laudable, verging on glorious. At the end, the audience was happy and cheering as it rushed out to the restrooms.
The show was well designed from top to bottom, and primary credit for its success starts with directors Courtney Wissinger and M. Scott Tatum. All of the design elements seemed well coordinated. Mr. Tatum’s scenic design was especially facilitating. To depict the famous Kit-Kat Club in Berlin, Tatum built two wide pillars upstage. Between them stretched a curtain for center entrances and behind which the club band performed all the musical numbers. A low platform for all the dances and singing extended center stage in front of the curtain and pillars. Stage left and stage right held the club seating and dining tables. Cast members depicting patrons and staff remained there throughout the play, performing and creating tableaux vivant. These human forms, in concert with costumes, styling and lighting, formed images strikingly similar to photographs of European clubs of the 1930s. This aspect was perhaps the most spectacular element in evoking the excitement of the setting and time. The highly textured pillar surfaces caught and interacted with the various lighting sets to harmonize and in part control the emotionality of each scene. The only notable flaw in the design was the second story windows, which were openings on a dressing room and the Master of Ceremonies’ garrett, stage right and stage left, respectively. The windows were frontally angled to the stage below them, but acutely angled to the house. I sat on the aisle seat house left (the theater has two aisles dividing the house in thirds and no aisles on the row ends at the walls) and I saw the stage right window scene at an extremely acute angle. No one to my left saw the scene at all. I estimate a quarter of the audience had no sight line at all on this scene. The corresponding situation pertained in the stage left window scene. The design staff had months to address this elementary, glaring problem. ‘Nuff said.
The action of the play roared across this set. The story of the Kit-Kat Club on New Year’s Eve 1931 and into 1932 is familiar to theatre- and movie-goers alike. The story dances through its many themes, all in lace and feathers, and easily escapes becoming merely the story of the romance between club singer Sally Bowles, played by Annamarie Kasper, and American writer Clifford Bradshaw, played by Connor Barr. The dynamo of the show is actually the Master of Ceremonies, played by John James Busa in the role immortalized by Joel Grey. Director Wissinger and Mr. Busa addressed the high standard and dominating image of Grey’s characterization wisely by seeking another dynamic. Their efforts were successful. Busa’s Master of Ceremonies combined the punk and goth esthetics, with a flavor of the vampiric. Busa’s Master of Ceremonies was snide, dominating, darkly threatening, seductive and sarcastic. In the end, too, he was tragic and suffering. He borrowed nothing from and owed nothing to Joel Grey. Delightful work, Mr. Busa.
Driving the action of the play in dance were the Kit-Kat Girls. The choreography was inventive, the credit given to Bazie Adamez, but it had the look of collaboration. It did not fail to excite. The Kit-Kat Girls are minor gems in musical theatre. Their heraldic colors are red, black and sequins. They all have back-stories, especially Rosie, Frenchy and Texas, and this gives them a whiff of mystery. Brennan Martinez as Texas conveyed by her immense stage presence both the naughty-naughty boldness and the mystery.
Well into Act II most of the tears have fallen to the stage and washed away the blood. The reprise of the title song is a solo by Sally Bowles, and as written it is a testament of irony that will stand the test of time. Sally takes the stage in a floor-length gown, still sequined, but this time instead of sparkling red or black, it has only the cool gray tones of black-and-white television static. As she sings, the patrons and staff leave the club one-by-one until it is empty; leaving Sally with the loneliness she fears most. And although the voice still releases the power of the song, the singer does not quite achieve the irony expressible by a worldly wise character just beginning to feel the corrosion of too much gin and repeated self-destructive choices. I wanted to sense the tears forming inside Sally Bowles, but I could not. Someday this performer, Annamarie Kasper, will convey such feelings with ease, and her career is to be followed with anticipation (she has been cast in Tutto Theatre Co.’s production of The Twelfth Labor, slated for August, 2012). For now, the song symbolizes clearly Germany’s own headlong pitch into the abyss.
Clifford Bradshaw seems to have stepped out of the play with no worse than two black eyes and saddening experience. The last lines of the play are his, and they keep the tone of tragic romance and ruin built throughout the play. The lines as written seem peculiarly awkward, but as Connor Barr delivers them flat and straight they gain immense impact: “There was a Cabaret, and there was a Master of Ceremonies…and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany…and it was the end of the world….and I was dancing with Sally Bowles. And we were both fast asleep.”*
*Quote drawn from Dir. Wissinger’s Director’s Notes.