Leave Your Troubles at the Door? Haunting Splendor in Little Lake’s “Cabaret”

By Eva Phillips

The first time I ever encountered Cabaret, I was a severely depressed 19-year-old, being moved to tears in a Dunkin Donuts at 2 AM as I watched Bob Fosse-directed, spectacularly manic Liza Minelli, and still-closeted Joel Grey perform their most iconic roles. It was stirring in a way that was visceral, yet felt abstract in 2010. Nearly a decade later, I’m just as depressed, and just as overwhelmingly moved by the thoughtful adaption of Cabaret put on by the talented team at Little Lake Theatre.

Much of being overwhelmed by Little Lake’s adaptation of the 1966 Broadway Musical (famously adapted into the aforementioned, 1972 film version that stormed the Academy Awards) can be contributed to the stunning performances and consistently superb creative choices made throughout the production. Additionally, though, a significant factor in the impact of this production of Cabaret is the often bleak, dread-inciting climate in which we now live, and how deftly and subtly the cast and creative team hints to that throughout the show.

Exploring the world that was Berlin in the 30s—a world that was at forefront of the European artistic zeitgeist, brimming with daring creativity and liberated sexuality—Cabaret weaves through the lives of Cliff (Jared Pfennigwerth), a young American writer traveling to Berlin to inspire his next project; Sally Bowles (Ashley Harmon), a British performer infamous in Berlin for headlining the sex-fueled cabaret bar, the Kit Kat Klub; and gruff yet compassionate owner of a seedy apartment complex, Fraulein Schneider (Christy Rodibaugh) and her affable neighbor, Herr Schultz, who runs a fruit stand.

After Cliff strikes up a fateful conversation with enigmatic Ernst (John Herrmann) on the train to Berlin, he ventures to Fraulein Schneider’s hostel to acquire as cheap of lodging as possible. Cliff then makes his way to the Kit Kat Klub, where any flavor of sexual desire can be fulfilled, and is enthralled by the performers led by the raunch-extraordinaire Emcee (Jeff Johnston), Rosie (Caroline Connel), Fritzie (Kaylyn Farneth), Lulu (Jillian Lesaca), Frenchie (Mairead Roddy), Helga (Savannah Bruno), Texas (Jesse Spielman), Victor (Grant Jones), Bobby (James Hartley), Herman (Jed Reifer), Hans (Justice Sifford) and, of course, Sally. After falling out of favor with the club’s owner, Sally weasels her way into living with Cliff in his claustrophobic, one-bed room at Fraulein Schneider’s. As they develop and unusual (and arguably, in some ways, unhealthy) affinity for one another, the horrifying rise of the Third Reich becomes ever more prominent, savagely infiltrating every nook and cranny of vibrant Berlin and the lives of all the characters.

(L to R) Pfennigwerth as Cliff, Harmon as Sally, and Herrmann as Ernst

Director Art DeConciliis is valiant in leading a phenomenal cast in Little Lake’s adaptation of Cabaret. DeConciliis creative choices are exceptional, and he ensures their adaptation makes use of every inch of the unique, in the round space at Little Lake. Likewise, Music Director Lisa Harrier is outstanding in the reanimation of the iconic music and songs of the source material, making it as brassy and gorgeously tragic as ever.

The ensemble efforts in Little Lake’s Cabaret are impeccable. When we are introduced to the purringly seductive (and keenly culturally astute) performers of the Kit Kat Klub, we are treated to a real show every actor on stage is superbly convincing and captivating in every aspect of their individual roles and their work as a unit. This standard of on-stage excellence is the case too for the actors enlivening the diverse characters in and around Berlin/ Little Lake familiar John Herrmann’s unsettlingly charming and ultimately sociopathic Ernst is brilliant and absolutely chilling, and he perfectly conveys the manipulativeness that allowed Nazis such dominance. Anna Gergerich, as Fraulein Kost and the Chanteuse is a delight to watch and a stunning vocal talent.

The performers driving much of the story are stellar. Embodying a legendary role like Fraulein Sally Bowles is no small feat, and Ashley Harmon tackles the role marvelously. She commands the stage with bravado, and deftly allows the cracks in Sally’s veneer to show in moving and subtle ways. She is fiercely raw and nuanced, knocking the audience out with numbers like “Maybe This Time.”

As the Jewish fruit stand owner who is viciously harassed under mounting Nazi pressure, Ken Frankenbery shines as Herr Schultz, being all at once sweetly and achingly burdened, portending the despicable torment and annihilation that is to come.

Frakenbery and Rodibaugh as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider

His chemistry with the equally wonderful Christy Rodibaugh as Fraulein Schneider, is one of the highlights of the show. Rodibaugh’s vocal abilities are powerful and haunting, and duets with Frankberry on songs like “Married,” and solo performances on songs like “So What?” showcase her all-out talent.

Of course, Jared Pfennigwerth’s turn as the naïve Cliff is one of his best, balancing mettle and rage perfectly with tragic idealism and relatability—a sign of a great performance.

Johnston as the Emcee

A special celebration is in order for Jeff Johnston who plays the complex role of the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub. Johnston is a consummate entertainer, and pours his heart into the role of the Emcee—of the Kit Kat Club, but also effectively the Emcee and narrator of the story as a whole—to incredible effect. Within both the micro and macro narratives of Cabaret, Johnston’s Emcee is at once scintillatingly lurid, achingly macabre, cheekily flamboyant, and solemnly watching (and prophesying) the collapse of the exuberant Berlin under the brutish Nazi presence. Both the unsettling gravitas and the flamboyant snark of the Emcee’s role are profoundly apparent in Johnston’s enthralling performance, and he drives the show with gleeful efficacy.

Without sounding hyperbolic or trite, the choreography of Cabaret is a glorious character in its own right.  It is easy to give life and heart-stopping emotiveness to the music—lyrically and instrumentally—of Cabaret, but to nail the show choreographically, and to make the movements of the show as evocative and exciting as the songs, is not as simple. Show choreographers Joe Nickel and Ashley Harmon collaborate together to produce choreography that is meticulously calculated, deeply expressive, and authentic to the contentious emotions and histories at play throughout the story. The choreography in Little Lake’s Cabaret is perhaps the finest choreography I have experienced outside of a dance performance in recent memory. From the astonishingly devastating movement of the performers on stage during the “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” reprise at the fruit shop, to the mockingly risqué staging of “Two Ladies,” the choreography is provocative, amusing, fastidiously melancholic, and unforgettable.

The Kit Kat Klub dancers prepare to thrill

While there are some issues with the consistency and balancing of the sound (particularly the vocals of various performers), they in no way diminish the effect of the overall show. I would be remiss to not urge everyone to attend the final performances of Little Lake’s Cabaret. It will arouse and excite; it will galvanize you to meditate on its themes—both intimate and social/global—without being overwrought. Cabaret is the perfect marriage of wild talent and conscious, meditative art.

Cabaret runs at Little Lake Theatre through August 24th. For tickets and more information, visit Little Lake’s homepage.

Photography Credit: Carina Iannarelli

Categories: Archived Reviews

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