PlayMakers Repertory Company kicks out the stops to close it 2012-13 mainstage season (through April 21) with the musical Cabaret, set in early 1930s Berlin, where the burgeoning Fascist movement brings an end to the frenetic hedonism of the late Weimar Republic. Although the earliest form of the popular musical and film is nearly fifty years old, PRC has based its production on the 1998 Broadway revival. Here PRC’s artistic director Joseph Haj directs; the choreography is by Casey Sams, and the music director is Mark Hartman, both guest artists who have done fine work in the Paul Green Theatre in previous years.
The role of the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub–where the girls are pretty, and the boys are pretty–is crucial to setting the tone of the production. It is filled here by New York performance artist Taylor Mac, who imbues his polymorphously lascivious character with danger, scorn and latent tragedy behind his elaborate make-up. Under the harsh lighting designed by Josh Epstein, Mac bounds and slithers around the stage and into the audience with demonic grace, taunting and enticing us all to leave worries behind and enter the club with its careless sensual pleasures. Designer Jennifer Caprio has given him a very large number of costumes, from the outrageous corset to the simple black dress, and most of the time he gets to show off his legs, which are well worth the looking. However, it is Mac’s mobile face that rivets the attention. His eyes are wide-set and differently shaped, the bones around them strong and prominent, the mouth wide and flexible. Beneath the thick make-up and glittering decorations, this face expresses the spectrum of emotion. He’s lurid, he’s sordid…but he’s not one-dimensional, so in the show’s final scene, he is truly tragic.
Director Haj has kept his eye firmly on the big matters in this show, and it pays off well in that last scene, when the consequences of treating politics like a minor interruption of the big party become deadly clear. At other times, one wishes for a little more care with the smaller scenes that lead to the big showy songs. Lisa Brescia, seen a few months ago in a fine performance as Ivy Weston in Theatre Raleigh’s August, Osage County, uses her powerful voice wonderfully in the Sally Bowles role, but she is not quite believable in her moments with the besotted young American writer Cliff. In this version, Sally’s not an ingenue, but a willfully ignorant woman, no longer young, clinging to her gin, her men, and her club act in an increasingly desperate pretense of enjoying herself. As is usually the case, free sex has a high price: Sally leaves her fur coat at the abortionist’s, and abandons Cliff’s love and protection to return to the Kit Kat and its nasty owner, Max (Ray Dooley).
Cliff Bradshaw is an ingenue–or at least, he’s an innocent. As the story opens, he’s headed to Berlin to work on his novel (having already failed to write it in London and Paris). On the train, he meets a German man, Ernst Ludwig (well-played by Brett Bolton), and at passport control, Cliff casually becomes complicit in the man’s “smuggling,” and is unthinkingly pulled into his orbit. It’s a role that requires some delicacy, and MFA candidate John Dreher demonstrates how much he has acquired in his time in the UNC Professional Actor Training Program. Unlike Sally, Cliff pays attention to the news, and gradually–despite his introduction to the distracting pleasures of the Kit Kat–begins to grasp the situation as the Nazis gain power in Germany. Dreher convincingly makes the transition from guileless American dilettante to young man of the world, even appearing to become physically harder and more assertive. Unfortunately, there is just no chemistry and little nuanced emotion between Dreher and Brescia, so their smaller scenes fall a bit flat, which makes the big emotional scenes and songs slightly confusing.
The emotional center of the production lies in the relationship between Fraulein Schneider, owner of the rooming house to which Ludwig introduces Cliff, and where much of the action occurs, and Herr Schultz, a fruit-seller and one of her roomers. The roles are played–and sung–beautifully by long-time UNC colleagues, Julie Fishell and Jeffery Blair Cornell. There is some chemistry–wonderful in itself, its shows what’s lacking between Dreher and Brescia. Fishell and Cornell have a lot of stage relationships under their belts, but I’ve never seen them better together, and I had no idea they could both sing so sweetly. The relationship between sour, tired, poor, Fraulein Schneider and lonely, kind, gift-bringing Herr Schultz blooms into a romance, and gives Cabaret its heart. The moment of their celebration becomes the pivot point of the story as well, when the adorable Fraulein Kost (Kelsey Didion, in fine form and a fine kimono), the roomer who makes the rent by making it with sailors, casually mentions Schultz’ Jewishness in front of the Nazi Ludwig at the engagement party. She’s without malice, without awareness of possible consequences–very like Cliff on the train. But this time, consequences are immediate: Ludwig furiously displays his hatred of Jews. He’s momentarily placated by Fraulein Kost and the other guests singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” with its many references to the Fatherland, but the pretty song might as well be titled, “Let the Killing Begin.” Suddenly, the atmosphere changes from torrid to frozen, and the show begins its spiral through irony to tragedy.
Haj has done an excellent job of making this Cabaret much more than a sybaritic entertainment. He makes all the salient points, and crosses effortlessly from the blazing light to its brutal shadows. But he has hardly neglected the entertainment, what with Taylor Mac skipping around and a bevy of young women in stockings and little else dancing and kicking and singing (Dee Dee Batteast outstanding among them, and touching as the Chanteuse). The set ought to win prizes for Marion Williams, with its great use of the stage space and its technical capabilities. The band, which she tented with brightly-lit girders, is very good (it includes Greg Gelb on clarinet and tenor sax, and John Hanks on drums). But there is one technical issue that is really problematic: the wireless headset microphones. I don’t really know why they need them in that theater, but surely if they use them, they shouldn’t be so obvious. During the first act on opening night, sound quality was mushy, though it was much improved after intermission. But the visual problems remained. Should we be distracted from Julie Fishell’s lovely duet with Jeffrey Cornell because we are counting the pieces of tape holding her microphone to her face and neck? Should the plunging back of of Lisa Brescia’s beaded gown be marred by a snaking microphone cable? Should the first thing you notice when some shapely girl shakes her butt in your face be the rectangular box of the microphone transmitter? I don’t think so.