On Friday, the Conservatory of the Performing Arts at Point Park University officially opened the new Pittsburgh Playhouse with their stunning production of Cabaret. This multiple Tony award winner is set in 1930’s Berlin as fascist ideas are taking hold in Germany following World War I.
The two central plotlines revolve around two romantic relationships. The first couple is aspiring young American writer Cliff Bradshaw, (Evan Ellicott Wormald) and the quirky young English cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Alexis Rae Smith). The second is the mature doomed romance between a boarding house owner, Fräulein Schneider (Lielle Kaidar) and the local Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz (Matt Fawcett).
Home base for the story is the seedy Kit Kat Club, a decaying and decadent night spot in Berlin, where Cliff first meets Sally. The club’s Emcee (the versatile Will Burke) serves as our host at the club, and as a compass to steer us through the story as the Nazi’s rise to power. Sally and Cliff are seemingly oblivious to what is going on around them focused instead on their career aspirations, success, and happiness. Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz with the wisdom of age are comfortable in their situation, yet search for companionship and intimate connection. (I wish Kaidar and Fawcett would have played their characters older as reflected in their dialogue.). Yet in spite of their hard-earned wisdom, they are also don’t fully grasp the sense of what is about to happen to their country and their lives. When they do wake up to the reality, it will be too late, for everyone.
For more on the backstory of Cabaret, click here for our Brian Pope’s musical of the month preview of Cabaret.
I find myself writing this review on the day of the deadliest mass killing of Jewish people in the United States. Leaving the theatre Friday evening, I was thinking about how the themes in Cabaret are still relevant today, over fifty years after it first appeared on Broadway. Saturday’s tragedy only reinforces the relevance of the show. Somehow, in spite of the world’s advances since the 1930’s we have yet to realize a genuinely caring and respectful society and civilization.
Director and head of Point Park’s Head of Musical Theatre Zeva Barzell has brilliantly deconstructed the show and taken it back to its core, necessitated in part by the physical constraints of the Rauh Black Box theatre, the smallest and most intimate of the theatres at the new Playhouse. What has emerged from the deconstruction is the 1998 revival, affectionally known as the glitter nipple version, stripped of all the excess frills and fluff. In the intimacy of the ninety seat Rauh, Cabaret becomes a performance not so much to view, but to immerse yourself in. The intensity of eye contact between actors and audience shatters the fourth wall. We the audience are in the Kit Kat Club, invested in the characters. Life has indeed become a Cabaret as seemingly disparate events pile on one after the other until the world crashes in upon us all.
One of the unique aspects of Johnmichael Bohach’s set design is the elimination of physical doors in a show who’s set traditionally has many doors. Without doors there is no escape from the coming doom, we are all in essence trapped in the Cabaret watching life unfold. In Bohach’s design, the entire Rauh space has become the Kit Kat Club. Once your ticket is taken at the door, it is a walk back in time to Berlin. (Note the change in ceiling pattern for the second act.)
Alexis Rae Smith as the charmingly quirky Sally
Musical Director Camille Rolla has strong singers in each of the lead roles. Burke is utterly captivating in his portrayal of the Emcee, a perfect combination of aloofness and intensity. His strong voice and facial expressions instantly draw you in as he sings Wilkommen. Bienvenue. Welcome! Smith’s Sally is featured in five numbers that range from Don’t Tell Momma to the signature Cabaret. Smith handles them very well both vocally and emotionally as her life falls apart. The cast members all possess strong voices, and the numbers are well sung. The nine-piece band is perfect for the size of the venue. Even though the actors are mic’d, Steve Shapiro’s sound design is subtle, never overpowering. The show is lovely to listen too.
Barzell’s choreography takes full advantage of the performance space weaving the steps in such a fashion that it doesn’t seem constrained by space. The Kit Kat boys and girls put on quite the show. Resident Costume Designer Cathleen Crocker-Perry fit the bill from the dapper Cliff, flapper-inspired Sally and the well-worn Kit Kat Club girls.
Lighting by University of Pittsburgh Stages department chair Annmarie Duggan takes full advantage of the Rauh’s capabilities to create the atmosphere of the Klub.
Allison Beauregard (who plays Fräulein Kost, the young woman who earns money for her rent by entertaining sailors) also serves as the Dialect Coach for the production. Across the board, the cast is consistent in their dialect throughout their individual performances with each character maintaining a slightly different voice as one would expect. Sally’s is a somewhat more refined English accent which makes her character even more attractive.
Great music and a great story make for a great musical, but what makes Cabaret so compelling is the characters, and that responsibility falls on the actors and director to deliver, and they do!. We must feel a connection with the characters and develop empathy with them. Despite their individual shortcomings as humans, we must quickly develop a bond with them; we must like, perhaps even love the characters. As we return from intermission, we have a sense of hope that everything might work out OK, and then it grabs your heart… The music and lyrics by Kander and Ebb are without a doubt a significant driver of that success but it is the story by Joe Masteroff (1919-2018) that makes it relevant today.
Cabaret, Point Park’s opening production for the new Playhouse is beautifully executed and emotionally engaging. It is a production one everyone involved can be proud of. Sadly, its message is still very relevant today.
The sold-out run of The Pittsburgh Playhouses production of Cabaret runs now through November 11th. For more information click here.
Photos by John Altdorfer
George Hoover got his start in theatre in Miami when his family ran the Coconut Grove Playhouse. His career encompasses a variety of work in both the design and technical side of motion pictures, live theatre, and television. George is a three-time Emmy Award winner, member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, Broadcasting & Cable Technology Leadership Award winner, Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Life Fellow, and most importantly a passionate theatre person and generally handy guy.
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