Review: “Cabaret” by The Harpers

Noah Golden

  • Associate Connecticut Theatre Critic

Bracingly original, astonishingly resourceful and daringly theatrical. These are phrases I often associate with artists like John Doyle, Ivo Van Hoe or Michael Arden, directors who reinvent and reinvigorate everything they touch. These aren’t phrases, however, I often associate with the local theater scene. I’ve kvetched before on OnStage about the tendency for companies to offer cut-and-paste productions that assemble their musicals solely based on the italic notes offered in the libretto. Yet bracingly original, astonishingly resourceful and daringly theatrical is exactly how I’d describe the sublime and innovative production of “Cabaret” offered by the new New Haven-based troupe The Harpers.

Forget what you know about Kander, Ebb and Masteroff’s “Cabaret.” Forget the rouge-cheeked Emcee from the original 1966 production and the leather-and-bare-assed Emcee from Sam Mendes’ 1998 revival. The Harpers’ “Cabaret” strips the musical down even further, past the (stained) skivvies of the Mendes production and delves straight for the blood and guts. Under the skin, you find the show’s strong Brechtian roots. This production is grimy and loud and dour and messy and extremely powerful. It’s one of the smartest and most beguiling shows I’ve seen in a long time.

Before this production of “Cabaret” even starts, the show begins. The venue is Lyric Hall, which was a vaudeville house in New Haven a century ago. The theater sat abandoned for decades until the building was turned into an antique shop and, years later, the owner decided to bring the theater back to life in 2010. But Lyric Hall remains stuck in time, complete with dusty artifacts and exposed, warping wood. The money you pay for tickets gets stowed away in a large antique cash register and you pass a grubby cigarette machine before entering the theater. The front row of the house, which seats thirty-something people, is only a foot or two away from the clamshell footlights and the tiny stage. There are no wings or curtains and the actors are already milling about when you enter. Exits and entrances are made through the house and from a hidden balcony at the back. This all gives an immersiveness to the production you don’t often see.

Staged with unlimited inventiveness by Sam Plattus, this production takes a John Doyle approach and utilizes a small cast of actors-musicians with minimal props on a bare stage. Cliff anchors the band on piano, Fraulein Schneider plays the violin, Sally Bowles staggers across the stage bellowing into a trombone. There’s also ukuleles, guitars, kazoos, melodicas, drums and all manner of percussion instruments. Sometimes the cast just whistles or stomps. Under Jay Eddy’s musical direction (she also provided the arrangements – think Amanda Palmer meets Tom Waits meets Kurt Weill), the score is rarely pretty but that’s not the point. Despite one character’s assertion that everything at the Kit Kat Klub is “beautiful,” there is not a glimpse of beauty on display here. Berlin in 1931 wasn’t very lovely after all.

Actors take on multiple roles too. Gabrielle Filloux (mainly playing the dim-witted Kit Kat girl Lulu), Brianna Bagley (as call-girl Fraulein Kost) and Zachary Fontanez (as the bearded-and-lipsticked cabaret boy Victor), all double as various supporting characters. Jeremy Funke takes on the slimy Nazi smuggler Ernst and gay dancer Bobby. In addition to playing the nebbishy fruit seller Herr Schultz, Raphael Massie also portrays the Kit Kat Klub’s possessive owner Max. Casting Massie – an African-American actor – as the Jewish Schultz brings a topicality and universality to the pre-holocaust narrative, reminding us that discrimination is universal and genocide has many forms.

The casting of his love interest, Fraulein Schneider, is also unusual. Elena Adcock – slim, blonde and beautiful – hardly looks the part of a haggard, middle-aged widow. Yet her performance is so well-pitched and sincere, you barely notice. Nate Houran looks more like your average Cliff, but he also subverts the role in small ways. His take on the American writer abroad is less of a wallflower and more of a man whose repressed homosexuality is causing a serious emotional and creative block.

The whole cast is strong with impressive, nuanced performances all around, but it’s often hard to pay attention to them when Jay Eddy is on stage as Sally Bowles. Her performance is magnetic, feral and heartbreaking. Sally, a two-bit chanteuse and world-class floozy, is an iconic character who has been played by a myriad of talented actresses. Yet Eddy’s performance feels fresh and unique, all wide eyes and exposed nerve. She’s Kate McKinnon on a cocaine bender.  She’s a revelation.

So much of this “Cabaret” works. From the big moments – a stunningly quiet finale, say, or turning the “If You Could See Her” dancer from a gorilla into a dancing pile of human garbage – to the small. Notice how “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” has been slyly transformed into a cowboy waltz. How the train station scenes are underscored by a snare drum beat that sounds like the chugging of an engine but also like an emerging militaristic march. How Cliff’s copy of “Mein Kampf” opens to reveal sheet music for “What Would You Do,” Fraulein Schneider’s haunting song about dealing with the rise of antisemitism.

But Plattus’ eclectic, throw-it-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks style, not unlike Doyle or Arden’s, can also have mixed results. The role of the Emcee, a character that typically anchors and sets the tone of “Cabaret,” never quite comes together in a satisfying way. Played by a waif-like Sammi Katz in an androgynously chic outfit and long, blonde ponytail, her Emcee doesn’t feel nearly as thought-out as the other unique characterizations. Katz does a fine job, but the role feels undefined, it’s not sexy or angry or naive enough to really make a statement. Eddy’s least successful musical arrangements also appear in the Emcee’s numbers. Too often the discordant, harsh arrangements obscure the quirky symbolic lyrics of songs like “If You Could See Her” and “Money.” When it connects emotionally, like in the title song, the noisy drunken bacchanalia being played adds tremendously to the unhinged atmosphere of the show. The song “Cabaret,” delivered with fierce commitment and painfully raw emotion by Eddy, has never felt more like the mental breakdown it is. But the meaning behind turning the delightful “Two Ladies” into an unpleasant racket isn’t so clear.

Not all of it works, but the audacity to make such big choices, to re-orchestrate a popular show and to make such a powerful, albeit brash, statement speak volumes to the type of content The Harpers wants to make. When Cliff warns the debaucherously oblivious Sally of the rise of Nazism by saying “if you’re not against all this, you’re for it or might as well be,” you can’t help but feel a twinge of nausea and, at the same time, realize exactly why this specific production of this specific play is of vital importance in 2018.

There are moments of genius here that make me very excited that a group like this has landed in New Haven. I’ll be eagerly awaiting whatever comes next.