Saturday, September 14, 2013

Cabaret Both Ominous and Entertaining

by Genevieve Heinrich
Photos by Carol Johnk

Nate Sullivan as Cliff Bradshaw; Ashley Sorensen as Sally Bowles
Iowa City - A confession: I'm a sucker for theatre that makes me uncomfortable. Many people go for the catchy tunes or the dancing girls (and Cabaret has plenty of both of those), but despite some great performances early on, the moment I knew I was truly enjoying ICCT's production of Cabaret was when I found myself unable to clap following the closing number of the first act. It was chilling in its exuberance - the perfect ending to an act that began with the promise to take all of our troubles away. Cabaret is not for those who need a happy ending to be satisfied... but if you enjoy your dancing girls with a dash of moral dilemma, Iowa City Community Theatre does not disappoint.

Set in Berlin just as the Nazis are beginning to rise, Cabaret tells a pair of parallel love stories. Struggling American writer Cliff Bradshaw is caught off-guard by British dance hall girl Sally Bowles (Ashley Sorensen). Meanwhile, his aging landlady Fräulein Schneider (Linda Merritt) is being patiently wooed by another resident in the boarding house, Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Chris Carpenter). The show's primary story, though, is that of a country struggling to maintain normalcy and sanity in the face of the coming fascist onslaught. The audience knows what is to come, but watching the way each character deals with the growing realization that their world is changing forces us to consider how we would react.

Director Josh Sazon, in his Director's Note, ponders the mystery of this show's longevity. Many 50-yr-old musicals, he argues, are enjoyed "more from nostalgia" than anything else. However, "Cabaret can still shock when done correctly, even in the age of twerking." That shock, in case you're curious, is NOT (necessarily) from the dancing girls. Cabaret speaks to concerns and values that still trouble us today. Without getting too political (*cough* As Sally says, "What's that have to do with us?" ...), watching the openly gay characters singing proudly along with the patriotic anthem "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" evokes the same heartache as watching the doomed revolutionaries in Les Misérables enthusiastically singing "Red and Black". Truly, everyone in Cabaret is doomed - a play set in the wind up to war can promise nothing less - but we love them anyway, to a person, even the characters we're meant to hate.

Some altogether stellar acting precipitates this affection. The character of Ernst Ludwig (Carl Brown), especially, must be lovable to be effective. Brown pulls of this charm with aplomb. His easy rapport with Cliff sets the audience up to have a compassion for him that we can never quite let go. Another stand-out performance is Lindsay Vincent as Fräulein Kost. The character is an example of a type that hits home for many - just trying to get by the only way she knows how, and attempting to keep people happy along the way. Vincent's performance is hilarious and solid; she steals nearly every scene she's in.

Linda Merritt as Fräulein Schneider;
Chris Carpenter as Herr Schultz
ICCT's Cabaret is filled with performances like these. The world stops every time Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are on stage together. Their chemistry is electric, and they are well-matched vocally. Carpenter is charmingly persistent, and Merritt's demure shyness with him is a lovely counterpart to her authoritarian confidence with her other boarders. Although Merritt struggles with the same trouble as several cast members - the tendency to slip back into an American accent while singing - she is believable, adorable, and ultimately heartbreaking in her scenes with her would-be beau. It is unfortunate that Fräulein Schneider has two songs ("So What?" and "What Would You Do?") that are solos sung with other people on stage. Sorensen and Sullivan are both admirable listeners, but both of those songs ultimately fall under the crushing weight of static staging, despite the actors' skill.

Aside from those two songs, though, the staging is wonderful. There are some inevitable sightline issues at the Johnson County Fairgrounds, but overall, Sazon uses the space quite well. The set design (by Rich Riggleman) is elegant - the scenes move in and out of one another with simple grace, and the transitions seem easy and well-practiced. The colors and angles in the Kit Kat Club design are eerily reminiscent of Nazi symbolism.

No mention of staging would be complete, though, without discussion of the amazing collaboration between director Sazon and Robert Kemp as the Master of Ceremonies. Kemp is impossible to ignore, no matter what he's doing, and Sazon ensures that he is always doing something. Kemp is incredible in his movement work, and makes full use of his near-omnipresence to assure us that we are not here for a good time. He becomes steadily more ominous as the show progresses, until, ultimately, it seems as though the other characters are merely puppets. He is deliberate with the audience, as well, always maintaining eye contact *just* long enough to be uncomfortable, and never letting us off the hook for the moral challenges that the show presents. His presence is often deliciously subversive - he reminds us, quite pointedly, that "Tomorrow Belongs..." to him. After all, he who tells the story writes the past.

Robert Kemp as the Emcee; the Kit Kat girls
...Ah, but you were wondering when I'd get back to the dancing girls, weren't you? Not everyone goes to the theatre for a moral dilemma! Life is, after all, a cabaret. The ensemble work with the Kit Kat girls is lovely, and the choreography (Fawn Boston-Halter) is fantastic. They are a mixed bag in terms of skill and engagement (as one would expect at a club of this sort... I imagine...) but the one adjective applicable to each and every one of the Kit Kat girls is: indefatigable. Throughout the challenging dance numbers, their voices are all clear and lovely. Special stand-outs include Sydney Hayes, Emily Duncan, and Olivia Symmonds. All of the Kit Kat girls achieve the admirable honor of developing their own persona, within the group. Aided by some fantastic costumes (crew chief: Jackie Allen), the Kit Kat girls are a haunting echo of the Emcee's questionable role as "entertainment".

Of course, their queen is the inimitable Sally Bowles. There would be no show without Sally. She is a difficult character to critique, as she is fairly unique in the musical theatre ouvre. Sorensen's muddy accent work, for example, may have been a character choice - after all, Bowles is intentionally enigmatic about her origins. Still, the wobbly and varied British accents were distracting, especially early on in the show. Likewise, Sally is intended to be a character who cannot necessarily sing well... however, in two of her three main numbers, including the title song, Sorensen is off-tempo enough to raise questions as to whether or not it's intentional. Still, amazingly, even as she fails to find synchronicity with the orchestra, Sorensen's acting is never off even by a beat. She is brash, and hurtful, and doubtful, and lovely, and there is never a moment where she's giving less than 110%.

The cast of Cabaret
The ultimate beauty of Cabaret is in its questions, not its answers... and the entire cast seems cognizant of the intent behind the piece, which, though not unheard of, can be rare. The knowing eyes of Kemp's Emcee and the strained relationship between Brown's Ludwig and Sullivan's Bradshaw are the true core of this piece, and not a moment with any of those characters fails to contribute to our anxiety and discomfort. If you enjoy theatre that makes you uncomfortable - or even if you just enjoy dancing girls and catchy tunes - be sure to find time to check out Iowa City Community Theatre's Cabaret. Remaining showtimes are today, Sep 14 at 7:30 p.m.; Sep 15 & 22 at 2:00 p.m.; and Sep 20-21 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets here.

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