Cabaret: Directionless musical still pleases with excellent performances

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November 14, 2011

9:51 PM

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming to this demonstration on such short notice. You’ll recall last year when I presented an incredible case: A proficient production that managed to live without a heart. Truly a remarkable discovery, if I do say so myself. Well, it seems lightning has struck twice, and I have yet another extraordinary specimen to show you all. I present “Cabaret,” running at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall through next weekend.

And just what is so special about this show, you may ask? It may well have set the record for the number of battles a play has with itself, at least when it comes to those works produced at the College of William and Mary. (“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” still holds the world championship.) This “Cabaret,” ably directed by Elizabeth Wiley while remaining fundamentally directionless, is infused with infighting not appropriate to the rather broad and pointed source material. It simply can’t decide if it wants pure, passionate sexual expression or a muted, theatrical sensuality tempered by the forces of repression. It doesn’t know whether to play its fascist aspects in a chillingly bold manner or hold back for fear of insulting delicate sensibilities. Most importantly, its love affairs couldn’t be more discordant, and we all know ill treatment of romantic partners is an indication of chemical imbalance. I therefore give all of you my first diagnosis: This production, it seems, suffers from di-show-ciative identity disorder. I also accept whatever jail time is necessary for the use of that pun.

Straddling the line between the elegant house of horrors from Hal Prince’s original 1966 production and the seedy, stripped-down pleasure palace of Sam Mendes’ 1998 revival, Wiley’s “Cabaret” presents a 1930s Germany teetering on the brink of civil war. The walls of the Weimar Republic are collapsing all around, but the consequences are reflected in the lives of a few patrons of Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub; the club’s Master of Ceremonies (an entrancing Joel White ’13) becomes narrator and participant, using the songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb to paint the increasingly discomforting picture.

The creeping rise of Nazism is portrayed alongside two love stories: those of Sally Bowles (Zoe Speas ’12) and Clifford Bradshaw (Nathan Alston ’13), the club’s self-styled English chanteuse and an American author searching for inspiration, respectively, as well as the affair between Fräulein Schneider (Annie Kehrli ’14, overcoming a vocal mismatch to give a wry wisdom to her character), a middle-aged landlady, and Herr Schultz (Christopher Richardson ’13), and a Jewish fruit shop owner. Richardson and Kehrli’s relationship is just hesitant, endearing and, ultimately, passionate enough to serve as a moving counterpoint to the affected and strangely restrained goings-on at the club, where the clearly talented ensemble hits all the right moves without creating the combustible, carnal emotional resonance which the bawdy book demands.

But make no mistake — this is a show with a star, one who approaches her role with all the fervor it needs, and very nearly redeems the libidinal disparity of this “Cabaret.” Speas, so often a bright spot of William and Mary productions (if not the brightest), outdoes herself here. Her Sally, unlike the cynically run-down Natasha Richardson in Mendes’ revival or the doe-eyed Liza Minnelli of Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version, is tragically aware of her own failings while fully embracing the “star power” of her position at the club. The numbers featuring Speas are really something; her arc from “Don’t Tell Mama” to the title song is one of a self-fulfilling prophecy, with Sally becoming something like the “prophet of doom” from the final number. Unfortunately for this production, the Cliff she’s been paired with leaves a little something to be desired. Alston nails the uncomfortable personality of the Act I Bradshaw but can’t seem to muster the all-important authority needed in later scenes as Cliff stages his own little resistance to the flowering Nazi regime.

These conflicts of character are, in a way, representative of the show’s major issues. The glittering and vivid costumes from Patricia Wesp and the meticulously derelict sets from Matthew Allar all gesture toward a vivacity only spasmodically realized in the show. If the romantic id of Sally, Schneider and Schultz were balanced equally by the restrictive superego of the Emcee and the club’s sexual masquerade, then there could be some real dramaturgical meat to this “Cabaret.” As it stands, the three of them have an entire production to fight.

One final thing for you attendees to keep in mind, should you wish to view this medical miracle for yourself: There will be rare times when you simply cannot hear what is being said or sung. Alas, I wish there was something to be done about this, but it seems to be yet another symptom of the condition. If you want to chance it, bring your own microphones to install.

To view a slideshow from the drag show, click here.

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