The intimacy of this well-acted production also makes you aware of its tight budget
Reviewed by Dan Solomon, Fri., Aug. 31, 2012
CabaretCity Theatre, 3823-D Airport, 524-2870
Through Sept. 9
Running time: 2 hr., 40 min.
The combination of spectacle and intimacy is a unique facet of musical theatre in Austin. Here, when there are big, singing-and-dancing moments happening in front of you, they're really happening right in front of you.
The downside to that intimacy, of course, is that the flaws become more apparent. So while the City Theatre Company's production of Cabaret offers you an uncommon opportunity to feel a little bit like a patron of the Kit Kat Klub, it also makes you feel like you're in a version of the club that's decidedly low-rent. Here, it's clear that the dancers' beige, contemporary lingerie comes on sale from Target and the doors from which the women emerge have the panels painted on. It's a distraction that persists throughout the show and which challenges the charisma and charm of its leads to overcome it.
The story – about a young American writer named Cliff Bradshaw (Matthew Burnett) who finds himself in Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power and who befriends the star of a nightclub cabaret (Leslie Hollingsworth-Vander Gheynst) – remains powerful in the hands of this cast. Hollingsworth-Vander Gheynst's Sally Bowles is appropriately strident, vulnerable, and manic as she inducts her Bradshaw into the Berlin subculture, and Burnett plays his part with a mix of naivete and self-righteousness that keeps things nice and ambiguous. Johann Robert Wood, as the omniscient-ish Emcee, meanwhile, is a charming, mischievous flirt with a hint of menace – which serves him nicely in the dark second act.
There are plenty of superlatives to toss out about the speaking roles (Vanessa Marie, as the prostitute Fräulein Kost, particularly captures the essence of the show's swing from broad comedy to fascist drama), and it's hard to leave a well-acted production of Cabaret feeling disappointed. But this one makes it too easy to notice that everybody's suit is two sizes too big, that the Nazi armbands are inappropriately colored, and that the set budget seemed to go mostly toward Cliff's period-appropriate typewriter.
It's probably possible to stage a production of Cabaret on a tight budget that re-imagines the Kit Kat Klub as a squalid place and portrays the Nazis we meet as poor, low-level strivers – a production, in other words, that makes choices around the limitations that a company like City Theatre has to deal with. What it gives us, though, is a show that's well-cast and crosses its fingers that this will distract us from how cheap everything looks. And during the show's quieter moments, it even works. But when the show goes big, it magnifies its problems as much as its spectacle.