Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cabaret Must-See Musical Theatre

A review of Cabaret from Robert Reid at The Record:

"War is on the minds of many Canadians.

"With our soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is mounting two musicals that unfold on the cusp of war -- the First World War in the case of The Music Man and the Second World War in the case of Cabaret.

"They make for a fascinating study in contrasts. William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience meets Broadway.

"Cabaret, which opened Thursday at the Avon Theatre, is dark, claustrophobic and foreboding. Conversely, The Music Man, which opened the previous night, is sunny, open and optimistic. It's interesting that Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966, when America was embroiled in an unpopular war (Vietnam) not unlike Iraq. Cabaret is more in keeping with the temper of the times in which we live, so it doesn't come across as the glorious success of The Music Man.

"Nonetheless, it's an impressive accomplishment achieved by a trio making their festival debuts -- director Amanda Dehnert, musical director Rick Fox and choreographer Kelly Devine.

"Whether on stage or in film, Cabaret has become familiar. Dehnert does a good job re-imagining what have almost becomes musical theatre clichés.

"Stratford mounted a memorable Cabaret in 1987 with Brent Carver as the Emcee and Sheila McCarthy as Sally Bowles. While this production won't linger so long in the mind, it offers its own copious rewards, especially in the first act which serves up extraordinary musical theatre.

"Inspired by Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical stories set in Berlin in the early 1930s and set to lyrics by Fred Ebb and music by John Kander, Cabaret depicts a society of the verge of collapse -- moral and esthetic, as well as political.

"The production is anchored by Bruce Dow who plays the Emcee as a sad, sinister, prescient, vaudevillian clown on familiar terms with evil.

"Sally is often portrayed as a waifish girl/woman. But Trish Lindstrom, who returns to Stratford for the second time in a decade, gives her Sally a quintessentially English stiff upper lip. That is, until she disintegrates before our very eyes while singing the title song drenched in disillusionment and bitterness. If anything Lindstrom has a better voice than Sally requires, but we can't hold that against her.

"Like Jonathan Goad in The Music Man, Sean Arbuckle is an emerging dramatic festival actor of talent who shows he also can sing. He's a solid Clifford, the aspiring American writer who travels to Berlin to find himself and ends up finding Sally.

"Cory O'Brien is effective as Ernest Ludwig, the gregarious young man Clifford meets on the train to Berlin, only to learn later that he is a Nazi.

"Ditto for Diana Coatsworth as the prostitute-cum-Nazi sympathizer Fraulein Kost.

"Despite the talent on display from the young actors, this production is dominated by the deeply affecting performances of Nora McLellan, as the plucky, German landlady Fraulein Schneider, and Frank Moore, as the heartbroken Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz.

"They make this Cabaret theirs.

"This isn't how the musical is written, but no matter. It still works.

"The production brims with campy decadence, but it never slips into lewdness or vulgarity.

"David Boechler's costumes expose a lot of skin -- including Dow's ample buttocks.

"Douglas Paraschuk's set is not the tradition Kit Kat Klub, but a dilapidated train station (remember Hitler got the trains running on time).

"Kevin Fraser's lighting bathes the production in dark, lurid tones reminiscent of the height of German Expressionism.

"Paraschuk and Fraser combine to create numerous exciting effects, including innovative use of projection on a scrim curtain.

"The Music Man and Cabaret both depict societies in transition.

"The difference is that in the former the characters are oblivious of what's in store, while in the latter the characters are all too aware, notwithstanding their denials. With this pair of complementary musicals -- one a comedy in which love is found and the other a tragedy in which love is lost -- the festival proves once again that Broadway can intersect with Stratford- Upon-Avon in the small southwestern Ontario city of Stratford."

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