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Review: The Rep's "Cabaret" Mostly Delivers On High Expectations

(Courtesy of Jerry Naunheim)

I’m a big fan of opening nights and when it is the Repertory Theatre opening their 47th season with Cabaret, expectations are enormous. There is much to like in this lavish production. As is always true at the Rep, the technical aspects are gorgeous. Michael Schweikardt’s Kit Kat Club is more than just the stage upon which the story sets, it becomes, as he had hoped, another character in the play. Angela Wendt’s costumes, with the exception of the Kit Kat girls opening jazzercise outfits, are eccentric and opulent when appropriate, and tacky and tawdry when needed. Lights by John Lasiter are lush and the all female orchestra is led in fine form by Henry Palkes, in chic ensemble. George Grosz’ expressionistic mural dominates the stage at the beginning and sends us on the way down the rabbit hole.

If you are unfamiliar with the play, it is based on the stories of a young American writer living in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. He falls in love with a nightclub performer and they hope to avoid the onslaught of politics by ignoring it. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka plays Clifford Bradshaw, the writer and Liz Pearce is Sally Bowles. The story belongs to them and to the Emcee, played here in fine if frenetic form by Nathan Lee Graham.

There is much here that audiences will love. The boys and girls of the Kit Kat Club are athletic and pretty, strong dancers and singers and the group numbers are great fun. They make the most of director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s routines. There is a manic intensity to the opening number that sets the tone of the play and some of the performances. Dodge works hard to make the play fresh and Graham’s Emcee is unlike any other I’ve seen, which is often interesting. Sometimes though, an odd choice seemed only that, odd for the sake of it, most noticeable in some of the costume choices and some of his movements. Graham’s Emcee is missing the Cassandra-esque understanding of what is happening in Berlin and we, in turn, are left without a guide through this underworld.

The ensemble deserves a lot of credit here, as it is their work, and some fine work by secondary characters, Blake Ellis’ Ernst and Dana Winkle’s Fraulein Kost, that kept me engaged and excited. Interestingly, the story that is most poignant in this production is that of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Mary Gordon Murray’s Schneider is luminous, her voice is warm and enveloping, her character is deeply etched. It is a beautiful performance. Michael Marotta’s Herr Schultz is kind and sweet and funny and their love blossoms over the fruit bowl. Their song “It Couldn’t Please Me More” about a pineapple he brings her is adorable. The actor’s abilities to dig deep made the roles seem larger than they are and I looked forward to their return every time they left the stage. Did I mention how exquisite Murray’s voice is? 

Sometimes the surface is so polished and artful that the actors neglect to craft the character’s depth. This happens with Pearce. Her Sally is loud and brash and sinfully indulgent, her voice is big and powerful, her look is wonderful, but whether due to this over-polish or opening night nerves, I could not find the depth of her Sally and it made the relationship between Sally and Cliff flat. Herdlicka’s Cliff is charming but he is unable to find a real connection to Sally and so the love story loses its tragedy. Ultimately, I walked out disappointed in this essential piece of one performance in what was otherwise a very strong and exciting production. 

Cabaret continues at the Loretto Hilton through October 6th.

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