Cabaret first came to Broadway in 1966, and at the time, it was rather ground-breaking. The second of many John Kander and Fred Ebb musical collaborations, Cabaret, based on the book by Joe Masteroff, is a dark story juxtaposing two worlds – real life in 1931 Berlin, where things are quickly unraveling as the Nazis rise to power, and the devilish decadence inside the cabaret (named the Kit-Kat Klub) where our host, the Emcee, proclaims “life is beautiful”, but more on him later.
The story bounces between the two worlds following several central characters: the Emcee, Sally Bowles – a British headliner at the Kit-Kat Klub, Cliff Bradshaw – an American novelist traveling in Berlin, Fraulein Schneider – the owner of a boarding house, Herr Schultz – an elderly Jewish fruit shop owner and suitor to Fraulein Schneider, Fraulein Kost – a prostitute at the boarding house, and Ernst Ludwig – a politically active German who befriends Cliff on the train. Additionally, there’s a large ensemble making up the Kit-Kat girls and boys, club patrons, and townspeople.
Cabaret requires versatility being a heavy dance show with lively music and a serious undertone. The contrast between the surreal atmosphere inside the Kit-Kat Klub and real life, also decadent but more dangerous, is striking. Alliances are born, and relationships are destroyed as Nazism grows stronger throughout the course of the show. All the while, the ghoulish Emcee lurks.
Cabaret has enjoyed success on Broadway with two subsequent revivals in 1987 and 1998, and in the movies with the 1972 motion picture starring Liza Minnelli, and directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, although the movie’s storyline differs significantly from all of the Broadway productions.
By pulling elements from multiple Broadway versions, Sunnyvale Community Players’ director/choreographer Lee Ann Payne creates an enticing composite production. One noticeable omission, probably due to SCP’s intimate theatre and small stage, is the absence of the stage band. Dan Singletary’s orchestra instead provides all of the music from the pit. This is possible using the reduced FLEXBO Combo orchestration covering the stage band parts and the critical acoustic piano, reeds, brass, drums, and bass, while providing a bigger sound by synthesizing the remainder of the orchestra. A “remnant” of the stage band is hinted at in the opening number with the Kit-Kat girls’ first entrance dancing with, but not actually playing, band instruments.
Musically, a difficult show carrying a dark edge, Singletary has created a nice sound overall. The orchestra is tight for the most part, although a few exposed acoustic passages were a little shaky in some of the dances opening weekend. These should solidify quickly.
The women’s chorus is very strong, and while the men’s chorus has a few pitch problems in the opening number, it settles out well for the bulk of the show. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, sung by a subset of the men’s chorus, is very well done. Its plaintive melodic beginning builds to a staunchly militaristic finale and provides a key piece of plot development, although they really should be in step marching off after concluding the number.
Payne, a fan of the Fosse style, has retained a combination of both Field and Fosse in her choreography. Utilizing a core of solid dancers, Payne keeps all the intended sensuality intact, and features many of her dancers at various points throughout the show. One particularly effective moment comes in the middle of act 2, during “I Don’t Care Much”, a melancholy Emcee vocal number with a very suggestive dance between two tortured couples, featuring Michelle Beyda-Scott, Veronika Olah, Peter Schuurmans, and Braden Taylor.
The dance numbers that work best are those stripped down to the core dancers and parts of the featured Kit-Kat girl numbers. “Don’t Tell Mama” has a striking final tableau with Valerie Valenzuela and Cheryl Ringman as “bookends” in fully extended leg lifts, and “Kickline” has a nice surprise at the top of act 2. While some of the full ensemble dance numbers aren’t quite as tight and are sometimes a bit out of phase or out of step, the effect still works.
Of course, this wouldn’t be Cabaret without several strong lead performances. Here, Payne has cast well, starting with Paul Araquistain (Emcee), who opens and closes the show. Following the Joel Grey model, Araquistain’s malevolence is convincing, startling at times, and appears effortless.
Emily Bliss captures the essence of Sally Bowles, delivering a true showstopper with her presentation of the title number in act 2. Her easy manner and good stage chemistry with Sven Schutz’s somewhat conflicted Cliff Bradshaw are also very convincing.
The Matt Tipton/Linda Piccone pairing is touching, Tipton’s gentle Herr Schultz at first sweeping Piccone’s Fraulein Schneider off her feet. Their songs are in the moment, bringing forth good emotion, and their accents are convincing.
David Mister’s Ernst Ludwig is a tough role. As both friend and villain, Mister carries this off very well as we watch him transform through the show. He too adopts a convincing German accent.
Cindy Powell’s Fraulein Kost is also strong, and her German is solid. She strikes quite a stage presence, her scenes sometimes done over set changes such as her “So What Reprise”, and yet she successfully keeps audience focus even in the face of rolling platforms.
Jen Maggio’s costumes are true to the Cabaret style, suggestive and sexy, with some of the fishnet stockings torn showing the girls’ wear and tear.
Staged with musical numbers covering many of the set changes, Cabaret moves quickly running just under 2 hours and 30 minutes, and the time just flies by.
Cabaret is a solid production, and finishes off SCP’s edgy 41st season, continuing Thursdays – Sundays through 15 May at the Sunnyvale Community Theater. See: http://sunnyvaleplayers.org/ for more information.