Review: “Cabaret” at the Ivoryton Playhouse

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  • Noah Golden, Associate CT Critic / CT Critics Circle

“In here, life is beautiful,” so says the iconic Emcee at the beginning of “Cabaret.” The boundary-pushing 1966 musical, with a score by John Kander & Fred Ebb and a book by Joe Masteroff, has been rightfully popular since its Broadway debut. But unfortunately, the story, set during the rise of the Nazi party, has never felt more scarily topical.

By the time Clifford answers Sally’s query of “What’s politics got to do with me?” by saying, “If you’re not against all this, you’re for it, or you might as well be” the walls between pre-WWII period drama and the current political environment have already, unwittingly, crumbled before our eyes. But Ivoryton Playhouse’s “Cabaret,” directed and choreographed by Todd Underwood, might have taken the Emcee’s words a tad too literally. This is a “Cabaret” that has spent too much time showering, shaving and shampooing; a production whose edges have been eroded under the faucet. That’s not to say the show fails – there are plenty of reasons to recommend it – but the end result is more a slight stomachache than the bloody gut-punch other “Cabarets” have left me with. It’s more a missed opportunity than a total misfire.

We begin in the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy Germany cabaret during the end of the Weimar Republic. A mysterious emcee (Sam Given, the show’s best asset), caked in make-up and false lashes, welcomes us to the underbelly of Berlin and the saucy denizens who perform at the club nightly. There are flashes of Joel Grey and Alan Cumming in Given’s Emcee, but the creation is wholly his – a queer, charismatic minx with a hedonistic glint in his eye. Given’s background as a drag performer (under the moniker Millie Grams) does him well, as he expertly banters with the crowd and performs the hell out of each number. The opening, “Willkommen,” is a highlight (he even calls one of the Cabaret dancers a “nasty woman,” in the show only winking bit of out-right topicality). But yet something immediately feels off.

Despite Kate Bunce costuming the Cabaret girls in garters and negligees, everything feels spotless and dry-cleaned; their make-up neatly applied, their hair styled. In each number, the Emcee and his back-up dancers get a new ensemble (including a white-wigged, Marie Antoinette get-up for “Money”). Visually it might work, but given that The Kit Kat Klub is a piss-poor burlesque, it seems unlikely to have the same wardrobe budget as a Cher concert. Perhaps that’s Cinema Sins-level nitpicky, but the parade of unsoiled, finely-assembled costumes against a nice-looking set gave the Klub (and by extension the whole production) a sense of cleanliness and security that works against the story being told. Although it surely holds a strong, exotic allure for its customers, the Kit Kat Klub should always feel seedy, threatening, unpredictable and risqué.

It doesn’t here – at least until it’s too late. Given waits too long to show the Emcee’s sinister side while the Cabaret dancers play at sexiness and debauchery with gyrating dance steps without really embodying it. There’s just not enough displaced, dangerous energy or explicit raunchiness in Underwood’s somewhat bland vision.  Even “Two Ladies,” a racy ode to threesomes, feels tame and safe.

Other numbers find a better balance. Backed by a terrific on-stage eight-piece band (a huge upgrade to Ivoryton’s usual habit of having the band out of sight and piped in), there are some wonderful musical moments. Given delivers a surprisingly sincere “If You Could See Her,” while “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” sang in Herr Schultz’s fruit shop, is goosebump-inducing. “Mein Herr,” a song originally written for the 1972 film, is well-sung by the brassy-voiced Katie Mack.

Joe Masteroff’s book concerns Clifford Bradshaw (Andy Tighe), an American writer who moves to Berlin for novelistic inspiration, and the many people he meets there. While the most famous of his acquaintances is boozy nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Mack), Clifford’s landlady Fraulein Schneider (Caroline Popp) and her Jewish beau Herr Schultz (John Little) make the biggest impact here. Popp and Little give superb, nuanced, heartbreaking performances that do wonders in grounding the entire production. It’s a testament to her talent that Fraulein Schneider’s usually dull song “What Would You Do?” became an emotionally-piquant stand-out. The scenes where Clifford says goodbye to Schneider and Schultz remains some of the most painful in American musical theater.

Tighe and Mack struggle more in finding their footing. One flaw of Masteroff’s script (based on John Van Druten’s play “I Am A Camera,” itself based on stories by Christopher Isherwood) is that Clifford, the audience stand-in, is rarely more than a wallflower. It takes a certain kind of actor to wrestle a compelling performance from the little personality Clifford is given on the page. Tighe doesn’t quite get there. He sings nicely, but his Clifford remains an enigma. Mack’s grasp on Sally feels just out of reach as well. It’s all saucy line-readings (in a spotty British accent) and eccentric mannerisms that don’t fully connect to the oozing emotional wound that prompts her self-destructive behavior. Mack’s best moment is her drunken take on the title song, but even that didn’t land as strongly as it could have if richer psychological groundwork had been laid earlier.

Some characterizations aren’t entirely there while the mise-en-scene feels too safe and scrubbed, but through it all is a series of successful moments. The second act is much stronger than the first and culminates in a thought-provoking, haunting stage picture that thankfully isn’t recycled from Hal Prince or Sam Mendes.

Despite all that, “Cabaret” still delivers a message that is of the utmost importance. At the top of Daniel Nischan’s set hangs a sign that reads The Kit Kat Klub and as I sat in the air-conditioned Ivoryton Playhouse on a sunny Summer afternoon, I couldn’t help but think of the other KKK that looms over our country, laying seeds of hatred and violence. As I write this review in the comforts of my home on the anniversary of the Charlottesville massacre, I can’t help but think of the modern-day landladies and shopkeepers, husbands and wives, whose peaceful lives have been interrupted by a violent gunman or a brick through the window for being Jewish or Latinx or Muslim. As I pontificate and kvetch about unsoiled costumes and somewhat miscalculated performances, children are caged in a different kind of concentration camp. This is the cost of listening to Herr Schultz, who says that “governments come, governments go,” and the result will be politics as usual.

“What would you do?” Fraulein Schneider asks us. “Cabaret” doesn’t give a clear answer – how can it? But it asks the question and reminds us that burying our heads in the sand of the metaphoric Cabaret might feel good, but it comes with a deadly cost. Leave the theater, open your eyes and do something – anything – before it’s all too late.

 

“Cabaret” runs through September 1 at Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, CT. “Cabaret” is written by John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics) and Joe Masteroff (book). The production is directed and choreographed by Todd Underwood and musical directed by Michael Morris with set design by Daniel Nischan, lighting design by Marcus Abbott and costume design by Katie Bunce. The cast includes Will Clark (Ernst), Carlyn Connolly (Fraulein Kost), Corrie Farbstein (Frenchie), Taavon Gamble (Bobby), Jade Genga (Fritzie), Sam Given (Emcee), Aliah James (Texas), John Little (Herr Schultz), Amanda Lupacchino (Helga), Katie Mack (Sally Bowles), Amani Pope (Victor), Carolyn Popp (Fraulein Schneider), Andy Tighe (Clifford Bradshaw), Emerson Valentina (Lulu), Max Weinstein (Hans), Renee J. Sutherland (Rosie) and Jayke Workman (Herman/Max). Photos courtesy of Jonathan Steele.