Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Potent", "Seductive" Cabaret

Toronto Sun theatre critic John Coulbourn gives 4.5 stars (out of 5) to Cabaret:

"This may be your parents' Cabaret -- but chances are, it's going to take them a while to recognize it.

"In her Stratford debut, director Amanda Dehnert tackles one of the best-known musicals of the past century and rebuilds it from the ground up, all but exorcising the ghosts of Joel Gray, Liza Minnelli and even Brent Carver, Sheila McCarthy and Alan Cumming in the process.

"It is, of course, the Christopher Isherwood-inspired tale, as retold through the eyes of playwrights John Van Druten and Joe Masteroff, and Dehnert retains all the essential elements of a world descending slowly and inexorably into hell.

"But, in a production that opened Thursday at the Avon Theatre, she manages, ever so subtly, to shift the routing just enough that even though we arrive at the same old destination, she seems to have taken us on a whole new trip.

"The story is still set in the troubled heart of Berlin, circa 1930, in a rooming-house run by Fraulein Schnedier (Nora McLellan) and in the notorious Kit Kat Club, where decadence lives in the person of a mysterious Emcee (Bruce Dow) who sits over the whole production like some tragi-comic God of Misrule.

"It is to this world that American Clifford Bradshaw (Sean Arbuckle) has come in search of grist to grind into a novel. Instead, he falls in with a mysterious German (Cory O'Brien) who introduces him first to Fraulein Schneider's establishment and then to the Kit Kat Club, where Clifford falls in with the flamboyant singer Sally Bowles, played by Trish Lindstrom.

"Sally soon bullies her way into Clifford's room and then his bed and the romance that springs up between them finds echoes in the relationship developing between their landlady and a fellow tenant, one Herr Schultz (Frank Moore), a Jew who runs a fruit stand in the neighbourhood.

"While these romances flourish, the world around them continues its descent into the madness that will become the Second World War -- and eventually, that madness overwhelms them.

"It is a story driven as much by impending doom as by the tunes of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb -- songs like So What? that capture time and place with the precision of a camera or Two Ladies that hold convention up for good-natured ridicule. There are songs, like Married, that will melt your heart, like Tomorrow Belongs to Me, that will freeze it, and like the song that gives the play its name, that seems to say it all.

"And they are all served up here with professional polish by musical director Rick Fox, working with a bravura cast who occupies Douglas Paraschuk's seedy set like wood creatures, unaware of their impending extinction. Costumed by David Boechler, choreographed by Kelly Devine and lit by Jim Neil, they offer up a potent blend of sex-drenched hedonism and worldly innocence that is certain to steal your heart.

"In counterpoint to their world, the Fraulein and the fruit-seller represent another facet of the tragedy, rendered even more deeply touching by fine performances from McLellan and Moore.

"Meanwhile, Dow's casting is inspired. He has the courage and the talent to break all the moulds, creating an all-new character that blends androgeny and sensuality with the haunting asexuality of a spoiled child. And while Arbuckle and O'Brien are strong in what are essentially supporting roles, Lindstrom is an unfortunate choice in the role of Sally Bowles.

"Even weighed against Clifford's accusation that Sally can only sleep her way into employment, Lindstrom just doesn't seem to have the talent, the personality nor the requisite sensual charms to fill the boots of Sally Bowles, only rising to the demands of the character in her defiant delivery of the title song.

"Still, what Dehnert has created is impressive -- a lingering testament to the seductive power of evil that is no less relevant or compelling today than it was when Isherwood himself first stepped off the train in Berlin."

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