“Cabaret” at Sixth Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

Photo by Eric Chazankin: Marjorie Rose Taylor with Kit Kat girls

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Liza Who?

In the capable hands of Sixth Street veteran and director David Lear, “Cabaret” explodes the boundaries of both stage and performance in an electrifying new vision of the celebrated musical. It’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s fascinating. It’s also just a tad disturbing…and rightly so.

“Cabaret” marks the twilight of anything-goes 1920s-era Berlin, and the ascendance of the Nazi movement in the early 1930s. The work is inspired by John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I Am a Camera” which was in turn based on the 1939 novel “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood. Lear takes us back to the original story, leaving behind the Bob Fosse glamour but keeping intact the madness, grit and harsh reality of those turbulent times.

Originally produced on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1966, “Cabaret” received eight Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Director for Harold Prince, and Best Choreography for Ron Field. The original cast included Joel Gray as the Emcee and Lotte Lenya as Frau Schneider, with original music by songwriting team John Kander and Fred Ebb.

The primary setting of “Cabaret” is the Kit Kat Klub, a microcosm of Germany at the dawn of Hitler’s rise to power. Artists and transvestites, gays and lesbians, Jews and Communists still move freely about, living and playing as they wish under the gathering storm clouds. “Cabaret” presents us with two worlds: the fantasy nightclub with its sometimes saucy, sometimes menacing social metaphors that masquerade as musical numbers; and the city outside where real life happens. In true musical tradition, it also presents two love stories: one between Kit Kat chanteuse Sally and the American writer Cliff; and the other between landlady Frau Schneider and Jewish vendor Herr Schultz.

Under Lear’s direction, the air crackles with racy energy. The actors are infused with their roles; the characters are fully alive onstage. There are intriguing vignettes with bits of quirky action sprinkled throughout, even with the non-speaking characters.

The large cast is a collection of some of the best talent the North Bay has to offer. Case in point: the dazzling Marjorie Rose Taylor. She does Sally Bowles proud and fully owns the role. She is so good that you forget all about that Minnelli girl. Her Sally is slinky, flirty and gutsy, and has the world by the tail - or so she thinks. Ms Taylor possesses a fabulous voice as evidenced by her show-stopping “Don’t Tell Mama”, although on opening night there were pitch problems shared by other cast members that just might have been due, in part, to malfunctioning sound equipment.

Naively hopeful Clifford is played with jaunty confidence by Mark Bradbury. He has some charming duets with Taylor including “Perfectly Marvelous”. Shirley Nilsen Hall plays Frau Schneider opposite real-life husband Norman Hall as Herr Schultz. They both do a commendable job in building the intimacy that leads to ultimate heartbreak. Their numbers together are nicely done, especially “The Pineapple Song”.

Ralph Avalon is stunning as the mysterious, charismatic Emcee, a fresh take on the show’s pivotal role. Grim yet provocative, he has an excellent voice which is showcased in numbers like “If You Could See Her” and “Welcome to Berlin”.

The show’s true defining song is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, delivered with chilling assurance by members of the ensemble. The Kit Kat chorus girls morph from Rockette line-kicks to Nazi goose-steps, and charming gentlemen suddenly reveal Swastika armbands. The choreography is at times incredibly inventive, making good use of the stage which was specially expanded for this production. The costumes, while not always strictly period, are skillfully evocative of the overarching theme - decadence given over to despair.

This is an ambitious “Cabaret” with a dark twist, envelope-pushing at its best, risky and risqué. Its enduring message: even the most tolerant of people in a society can be influenced by those in power to turn on the ones they love, and betray their own values. Life is indeed a “Cabaret”, old chum.

When: April 15 to May 15, 2011
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays
2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Tickets: $15 to $39
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre
52 West 6th Street, in Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com