Life is a CABARET at PlayMakers

Taylor Mac as the Emcee (standing) with the Ensemble in PRC's CABARET. Photo:: Jon Gardiner/PRC.

Taylor Mac as the Emcee (standing) with the Ensemble in PRC’s saucy production of CABARET. Photo:: Jon Gardiner/PRC.

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.

Taylor Mac as the Emcee, with the Kit Kat Club dancers in PlayMakers' CABARET. Photo: Jon Gardiner/PRC.

Taylor Mac as the Emcee, with the Kit Kat Klub dancers in PlayMakers’ CABARET, now running in the Paul Green Theatre. Photo: Jon Gardiner/PRC.

Angels of NIGHT: Tift and Simone at the First Presbyterian

Tift Merritt. Photo: Duke Performances

Tift Merritt. Photo: Duke Performances

Tift Merritt, rocking Americana singer-songwriter from Raleigh, and Simone Dinnerstein, spell-weaving classical pianist, had met briefly during a Gramophone magazine interview, but it took Duke Performances‘ impresario Aaron Greenwald to coax the two musicians into a collaborative project. The two passionate and exacting women found a shared sea of music beyond the borders of their madly different worlds, and created Night, which premiered in Duke’s Reynolds Theater in January, 2011. I was lucky enough to be there, and you can read my review of the premiere in full here.

Tift and Simone (I’m sorry, I just can’t maintain news-style formality for these musicians who are practically family around my house, we have so many albums by both of them) continued to work the piece, a flow of music and song, of energy, love and curiosity, into a something a little more manageable, and the refined version was released last month on Sony Classical, Simone’s label (Tift’s on Yep Roc, uh huh). They’re now touring the show, and Duke Performances brought them back to Durham with it–but not to Reynolds. Instead, they performed at the beautiful and acoustically vibrant First Presbyterian Church, where I was lucky to attend the first of two shows on April 4.

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo: Duke Performances

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo: Duke Performances

Well. The 7 p.m. show was sold out, and on a night teeming with icy rain, it appeared every one showed up–from Duke music honchos to dudes in cowboy hats, and lots and lots of women from a spectrum at least as wide. It was an exemplary audience, unusually quiet during the music, and unrestrainedly appreciative between and rapturous at the concert’s conclusion. You rarely feel that much love in the room…maybe it’s Tift who brings it. The last time I remember so much love bouncing around the venue was at her first big local concert, at the NC Museum of Art Amphitheater many years ago.

Thursday was  another of those magic nights, when the music is beyond sweet and all expectations are surpassed. This is partly due to the wonderful sound in the church–the huge glossy Steinway has never sounded so clear in Reynolds, and a singing voice has all the room it needs to soar–but more to the greater intimacy between the performers. They were so aware of each other, so connected emotionally, that the music poured out with unusual beauty. The joyous wonder on their faces when something difficult went so very right increased the pleasure of hearing it.

Night has changed a bit over the last two years, and the stage show is a little different from the album. The album is very fine, but it does not begin with Simone playing the lovely Robert Schumann piece, “In the Evening,” which is a shame. She opened the first “set” with that elegant composition, then the set alternated between her and Tift, with her beat-up guitar and scuffed boots. There were no awkward pauses this time: the last piano note merged seamlessly into the first guitar strum.

Tift has gained so much control over her voice in two years that calling her a pop singer doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe we can call her a chanteuse. One of the more thrilling songs was the pair’s rendition of Nina Simone’s arrangement of the Billie Holiday classic, “Don’t Explain.” Compared to her singing of it in the 2011 performance, Tift has become more powerful, her voice more definite–and Simone has loosened up to find the jazz in the piano accompaniment. It was also flat wonderful to hear harmonica + Steinway.

On “Wayfaring Stranger,” Tift let the sound billow up to the rafters, giving us just enough of the coffee-cigarettes-whisky burr in her voice to keep it real. Another surprise was her taking the piano bench and belting out a song from there as she “pawed” the keys. “It takes a special kind of courage” she said, to play piano around Simone. I guess so. But you could hear that Tift has brought out a new fearlessness in Simone, too, when she sat back down and totally rocked out on some Bach. Even she looked a little surprised.

She also played Daniel Felsenfeld’s The Cohen Variations, based on Leonard Cohen’s haunting “Suzanne.” This was where the acoustic quality of the room made such a noticeable difference. I had remembered this piece as slightly muddy, and had wondered why such a demanding aesthete had chosen it. Now I understand–the hard surfaces in the church sanctuary gave it the ringing clarity and crispness it needs. The Elizabethan song “I Gave My Love an Apple” was also well-served. With Tift strumming and singing (without the microphone, so nice), Simone reached into the piano and plucked the strings, and the sound was breathtakingly lovely.

Night ends with the promise of day, as Tift lets loose on her and Simone’s arrangement of the great Johnny Nash song from 1972. “I can see clearly now the rain has gone/I can see all the obstacles in my way…it’s gonna be a bright bright bright bright sunshiny day!” The ladies left the stage, but the roaring, stamping crowd demanded an encore. Before they purred through a Gabriel Faure art song (maybe they”ll record an album of French songs!), both artists admitted they had no idea how they were going to repeat the show in 45 minutes, let alone top it. It was a great one, no doubt about it, and every heart was bright with the music. But outside, it was still night, and another eager audience poured in to receive the blessing of song.

More stars at Five Points: Pleiades Gallery to open 4/6

Kimberly Wheaton's gallery-opening scene awaits tomorrow's gallery opening

Kimberly Wheaton’s gallery-opening scene awaits tomorrow’s gallery opening

Downtown Durham’s Five Points continues to transform in delightful ways. The newest neighbor is a daring enterprise, an art gallery. And not just any kind of gallery, but, according to co-owner Renee Leverty, a “hybrid.” Leverty, a sculptor, and co-owner Kimberly Wheaton, a painter, formed a for-profit LLC for the Pleiades Gallery at 109 E. Chapel Hill Street (between Pizzeria Toro and the Marriott), but they also started a collective of artists to show their work and to staff the space. It’s an arrangement that may help them all to dodge the pitfalls of both types. Currently, the collective includes seven artists working in a variety of media, and Leverty says that the group is looking for three more, probably sculptors, to fill out the roster. For hours, etc., see

Wheaton & Leverty in window

Wheaton & Leverty through the window of Pleiades Gallery, 109 E. Chapel Hill St.

One of Leverty's metal sculptures

One of Leverty’s metal sculptures reaching for a new home

Renee Leverty, co-owner of the "hybrid" gallery Pleiades

Renee Leverty, co-owner of the “hybrid” gallery Pleiades

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