Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Molly Beth Brenner, Fri., June 18, 2004
Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, through July 18
Running time: 2 hrs, 30 min
In 1674, poet Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux wrote, "Every age has its pleasures, its style of wit, and its own ways." Although each age is flavored by these, some eras are actually defined by the crude excess of their pleasures. Kander and Ebb's beloved musical Cabaret captures such a place and time: the naughty, bawdy Berlin of the early 1930s. The show's creators capture the period's reckless nightlife in a theatrical feast, a Dionysian ode to sex, booze, and jazz, dressed up in false lashes, thick rouge, and torn fishnets.
But Cabaret's themes run deeper. It's also about hedonistic abandon as a form of rebellion against fascism. In Cabaret, self-destructive self-expression stands in for more balanced discourse when reasonable discourse is impossible.
The Zachary Scott Theatre Center's production embraces these elements with the very abandon the play champions. The production is in-your-face with decadent sex appeal, exhibiting a drop-dead gorgeous chorus of phenomenal dancers who, taken as a group, may be the real star of the show. Carlos Ferreira's complex, risqué choreography and Susan Branch's deliciously provocative costumes have much to do with the chorus' appeal, but it's their looks and physicality that allow them to carry both off.
Zach's Cabaret tackles the bisexuality and homosexuality in the script head-on, trading the effeminate male Emcee for a crude, sexy, butch female whose presence is fairly electric. Susanne Abbott's rapport with audience, band, and chorus is playfully racy without being affected (although I sometimes had trouble understanding her heavy accent). Karen Kuykendall disappears into the role of Fraulein Schneider, breathing wisdom and depth into numbers like "So What" and "What Would You Do." Greg Gondek brings a warmly naive, sympathetic presence to the hapless American Cliff Bradshaw. And Jill Blackwood is full of surprises: Not only does she perform commendably as the Nazi whore Fraulein Kost, but she treats us to a breathtaking moment as the chanteuse in "Married," crooning cynical subtext into the sweet song. She even stands in with the band for a few saxophone solos.
Despite its dynamism, the production isn't perfect. Although Meredith McCall is a fine actor, I found her Sally Bowles to be lacking in complexity and in presence. Sally is more pizzazz than realism, and a certain exhibitionist abandon seemed missing in McCall's controlled performance. Director Ann Ciccolella's choices are powerful overall, but her direction of the show's central number, "Cabaret," makes it less a spine-tingling anthem to laughter in the face of destruction than a pathetic view of Sally's personal downfall.
From there, Ciccolella opts for an ending that starkly re-enacts the Nazis' destruction of homosexuals and Jews. Although this lends the finale an unmistakable power, I craved just one more moment in the Kit Kat Club, celebrating the brave rebellion of debauchery. The New York Times reviewer Walter Kerr wrote, "[Cabaret] has elected to wrap its arms around all that was troubling and all that was intolerable with a demonic grin, an insidious slink, and the painted-on charm that keeps revelers up until midnight making false faces at the hangman." In this production, I wished the revelers, not the fascists, had had the last word.