One of the things that I not only respect, but truly love about Porchlight Music Theatre is that their productions tend to have very clear and detailed concepts. And, I love that they take chances and swing for the fences.
Sometimes those swings hit homeruns. Sometimes they’re base hits. But at the end of the day, they usually win the game.
Porchlight artistic director Michael Weber helms the company’s current production of the dark and twisted musical Cabaret. Weber has a very clear concept that he outlines in the director’s notes in the program.
It is a concept that incorporates the influences for Christopher Isherwood, John Van Druten, and Hal Prince.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Isherwood was the novelist who wrote the anthology The Berlin Stories, which was heavily influenced by his own experiences in Berlin in the 1920s in the time leading up to the Nazi Party taking power propelling Germany into embarking on World War II.
Van Druten is the playwright who adapted one of those books, Goodbye Berlin, into a gripping dramatic stage work. With its title taken from a quotation in the book, I Am a Camera was a monumental hit on Broadway. Actress Julie Harris won a Tony for originating the tragic role of nightclub singer Sally Bowles.
A dozen years later, Hal Prince sought to adapt that play into a musical. His own time in Berlin, exposed to a seedy nightclub with a dwarf for an MC, would become the influences for his vision for Cabaret.
The story for the musical is significantly different than I Am a Camera, with characters undergoing dramatic changes. It features a jazz-influenced score with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Joe Masteroff.
Cabaret premiered on Broadway in 1966. It won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Direction for Prince. It has had numerous revivals on Broadway and in London, each one changing different elements including songs and character traits.
A 1972 film by director and choreographer Bob Fosse has heavily influenced the way most productions are choreographed today. However, the film featured a very different script that places a heavy focus on the male lead character being bisexual.
Fosse’s film won eight Oscars, including Best Director. Different elements from the Fosse film have been incorporated in various revivals over the years.
For Porchlight’s adaptation of Cabaret, we start in 1952 as novelist Clifford Bradshaw returns to Berlin after the war to photograph the ruins of a place he once knew well. From the rubble, a survivor of the war emerges – propelling the story on stage into a retelling of those bygone days of Clifford’s time as a young lover in a pre-war city of temptations and excitement.
Suddenly we are back in the late 1920s at The Kit Kat Klub, an establishment scorched in sin, run by businessman Max but ruled over by a devilish master of ceremonies (or emcee) straight out of Hal Prince’s memories.
Josh Walker plays the emcee. Having performed on Broadway and at the Kennedy Center, as well as some of the most respected theaters across the country, Walker has a glorious voice. He gives his character a highly sexualized persona that is also very sinister – delighting in the misfortune of others. He carries the cross of the director’s vision and delivers in spades.
We meet Clifford, an American who is searching for inspiration for a novel, hoping to overcome the relative lack of notoriety of his first book. He’s on his way to Berlin via train and is befriended by Ernst Ludwig, a charming man of questionable morals and many connections.
Through Ernst, Clifford finds residence in the boarding house of Fräulein Schnedier, a strong woman who has never married but has learned to survive in a man’s world. Schnedier is romantically involved with Herr Schultz, an elderly Jewish man who lives in her building and runs a nearby fruit shop.
Taking in his new surroundings, Clifford finds himself in The Kit Kat Klub where he is first introduced to Sally Bowles – the nightclub’s headliner. Sally lives life by the minute. She has no problem sleeping with a man in order to have a roof over her head for the night, and she is addicted to the spotlight and the dream of stardom that she is painfully unaware is never going to be in her destiny.
While at the club, Clifford also rekindles a romance with a young male dancer, Bobby. While Clifford being bisexual coincides with the sexuality of The Berlin Stories author Isherwood, it is something that was not present in the original Broadway production of Cabaret. It was added in the Fosse movie and then in some of the Broadway revivals.
This is one of those choices that not everyone is going to agree with. There are those who love that Clifford has this added element to his character and feel that it makes him more complex. There are others who feel it unnecessarily muddies the storyline and detracts from the plot point of Clifford being a bit of an innocent who gets tempted into following Sally down an elicit path.
Of course, Clifford and Sally end up in a romance inspired by her need for a place to sleep. At first, things are all fun and games, but as soon as the Nazi’s begin to rise in power, the couple must face real lifechanging decisions.
Erica Stephan plays Sally Bowles as if the role was written for her and her alone. Her characterization is so detailed and riveting, as an audience member you can’t look away. With a powerful voice, incredible dance skills, and an acting talent that demands star billing, Erica Stephan is the kind of actress that can make any role seem like it was written for her. If you miss her performance as Sally Bowles, you’ve missed greatness.
Clifford Bradshaw is nicely played by Gilbert Domally. He’s a handsome young man with a very engaging smile, but also is capable of brooding with the best of them. His natural charm might remind some of Michael B. Jordan.
Mary Robin Roth is a gift as Fräulein Schnedier. She commands the stage with an emotional delivery that could stop traffic. She has an incredible belting voice that makes it clear why she has been on Broadway and should be again. She makes you feel her character’s emotions. That takes a powerful actress.
Opposite Roth is Mark David Kaplan as Herr Schultz. He adds just the right touch of comedy to the old shop keeper to make him endearing. He’s a good man, incapable of seeing that evil is very real. It is a touching and human performance that will stick with you long after you leave the theater.
The ensemble are all wonderfully gifted singers and music director Linda Madonia has done some amazing arrangements of the Kander and Ebb score. The harmonies on ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me,’ and generally throughout the production, and stunning.
Among the supporting cast, Josiah Haugen is very convincing as Ernst Ludwig and Neala Barron is a standout as Fräulein ‘Fritzie’ Kost. Barron’s voice is simply magnificent.
Numbers like “So What,” “Perfectly Marvelous,” “Maybe This Time,” “What Would You Do,” and “I Don’t Care Much” are all standouts. But it is Stephan’s rendition of “Cabaret” that tears into your soul. In that moment, she is Sally Bowles, and you are in 1920s Berlin. You see her beauty and know that it will soon tragically be gone, because she will be gone – she burns with an intensity that can’t be maintained.
Because of the success of the film version of Cabaret, there is a contingent that automatically associates the show with the dance style of Bob Fosse. However, it should be remembered that Ron Field won the Tony for Best Choreography for the original Broadway production – long before Fosse was ever associated with the show. As such, it is not required to do the show in a Fosse style.
STEP BY STEP
I am a longtime fan of choreographer and associate director Brenda Didier. She is an incredibly gifted choreographer as evidenced by her multiple Jeff Awards. Didier has opted to not go with a Fosse-inspired motif, and puts her dancers through their paces with moves tailored to their individual talents. She knows how to do her job, and she does it well.
Costume designer Bill Morey does a fine job making sure everyone looks the part and scenic designer Angela Weber Miller creates an appropriately seedy environment for the story to take place in. Lighting designer Patrick Chan, sound designer Matthew R. Chase, and dialect coach Kathy Logelin all deserve praise as well.
This production’s slant belongs to Michael Weber. His vision is clear in his director’s notes, and he has set out to create that vision with pinpoint precision. Some of his ideas work incredibly well, some don’t elicit the that same level of enthusiasm but are still entertaining. That’s what happens when you dare to make bold choices.
And those ideas that work well? They’re damn impressive!
Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of Cabaret is one that should be seen. Erica Stephan gives a performance that will have people talking for years and director Michael Weber provides a concept that adds new layers to a dark and compelling piece of musical theatre entertainment.
The regular performance schedule for Cabaret is Thursdays at 7:30 PM Fridays at 8 PM., Saturdays at 3:30 and 8 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM through March 5th. There is a weekday matinee Thursday, Feb. 2 at 1:30 PM. Post-Show Discussions are scheduled Friday, Jan. 27 at 8 PM and Thursday, Feb. 2 at 1:30 PM. Open caption performances are Saturday Jan. 28 at 3:30 PM. and Saturday Feb. 4 at 3:30 PM.
Porchlight Music Theatre performs out of the Ruth Page Center for the Arts located at 1016 N. Dearborn Street in Chicago.
Tickets for Cabaret may be purchased through the Box Office by calling (773) 777-9884 or by visiting PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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