It’s immediately evident from the grim, near colorless set, dimly lit by the amber glare of incandescent lights penetrating the darkness, that one is about to witness a decidedly bleak version of the Kander and Ebb classic, Cabaret. And while the sense of foreboding is pervasive, the dazzling score and plentiful flashes of brilliance in all elements of this intimate production help to lighten the oppressive mood.
It comes to no surprise that the subdued, contrasting design is the brainchild of Michael Palumbo, whose reputation for impeccable lighting is well known throughout the Bay Area theatrical community. Together with fellow designer Selina G Young and costumer Michele Wynne, they’ve composed a striking visual tableau of predominantly black and white hues, with the occasional shocking splash of red, which perfectly captures the ambiance of both the period and the play.
For those few who may not know the basic plot, the setting is Berlin in 1929 during the decline of the Weimar Republic and the steady rise to power of the far-right National Socialist Party (“Nazis”) under Adolf Hitler. Despite the ominous political and economic times, or perhaps in reaction to them, cultural life in Germany has taken on a desperate decadence, exemplified by the ostensible refuge offered within the naughty confines of the seedy nightclub known as the “Kit Kat Klub.”
Clifford Bradshaw (Brandon Mears) is a poor American writer who’s visiting Europe with the hope of finding inspiration for a new novel. He arrives in Berlin by train and while on board befriends Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn, Jr.), a political activist, who suggests the struggling author teach English to earn money. Ernst appears to know virtually everyone, and recommends that that Cliff stay at a boardinghouse run by a Fraulein Schneider (Judith Miller). He takes residence in her racy abode that is inhabited by an upstairs neighbor (a wonderfully sleazy Lydia Lyons) who has frequent nighttime callers.
Cliff very quickly finds himself at the raunchy Kit Kat Klub and meets a young English performer named Sally Bowles (Halsey Varady), a vocalist with aspirations of becoming an actress. As one would expect love begins to blossom, but complications inevitably ensue for the star-crossed couple.
The story unfolds, however, with not just a romance between Sally and Cliff, but also between the aging gentile Fraulein Schneider and her Jewish suitor and fruit stand vendor, Herr Schultz (Martin Rojas Dietrich). Interestingly, the latter relationship is the better realized and more poignant of the two. Sadly, it becomes apparent early on that their touching courtship is doomed by the extreme intolerance of the looming social upheaval.
Overseeing all that transpires in and out of the tawdry venue is the “emcee,” a slightly ghoulish, sexually androgynous character in full feminine makeup, beautifully played with a strangely charismatic, lurid insouciance by Jef Valentine. He’s either in drag sporting some fancy gowns or wearing costumes featuring blazers, vests and boxer shorts, accessorized with hats, suspenders and sock garter straps, all stylishly imagined by Ms. Wynne. And his delightful “threesome” song and dance number (“Two Ladies”) with Bobby (Matt Bariletti) and Helga (Allison F. Rich), is nicely done and splendidly choreographed for utmost comic suggestiveness by Carmichael “CJ” Blankenship – who does wonders utilizing the cramped quarters of the allotted space.
As Clifford Bradshaw, Mr. Mears brings a wholesome, boyish charm that serves his part well. Cliff’s bisexuality is brought to the forefront, but it’s not adequately explored nor is this largely non-singing role given enough depth or breadth by librettist Joe Masteroff.
The same could be said of Ernst Ludwig, portrayed with a winning finesse by Mr. Springhorn. Springhorn, however, is given a chance to stand-out during the mesmerizing, albeit quite disturbing, final scene of the first act, featuring a undeniably stirring rendition (with Ms. Lyons) of the ersatz “fatherland” anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Suffice it to say it left the opening-night audience morally aghast with mouths agape!
Scene-stealing turns are given by the multi-talented Ms. Miller and Mr. Dietrich, whose warm and dignified portrayal of the ill-fated elderly couple is the sentimental highlight of the show. Their duets together, including “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married” (with siren-voiced Ms. Lyons) are simply divine. And Ms. Miller’s solo “What Would You Do” is truly arresting.
And then there’s Ms.Varady, whose singing prowess and acting acumen is, in a word, astonishing. Kudos must go to director Rick Singleton for allowing her to push the envelope and strip bare the very soul of Sally Bowles – there’s not a hint of vanity in her performance. She’s taken a thinly drawn character, that is at times unlikeable, delusional and hopelessly oblivious to the world around her, and made it all her own. Virtually every facet and nuance is Ms. Varady’s own vibrant creation.
Moreover, her emotionally raw takes of the standards “Maybe this Time” and “Cabaret” are thrilling in their intensity and yet almost painful to watch because of their unflinching honesty, and they provide a fitting showcase for her unquestionable show-stopping ability (enhanced with sweet echo chamber effects by soundmeister Nion Dickson).
Of course, nothing’s perfect, and Ms. Varady’s Brit accent is admittedly not the best. And the lack of any convincing chemistry between her and Mr. Mears makes it difficult to buy their pairing and undermines any credible stake one can have in their staying together. Those misgivings aside, a more complex and definitive portrait of Sally Bowles is not likely to be found. Bravo!
Special recognition must go to the wonderful ensemble of Kit Kat Klub dancers, Allison F. Rich, Christine Capsuto, Clarissa Chun, Chellana Dinsmore, Mr. Blankenship and Mr. Bariletti, most of whom are required to sing and play musical instruments (augmenting a live band under the direction of Mr. Dietrich). Many of the principals are also given an opportunity to show off their impressive musical versatility, including Ms. Varady on violin, all while blending seamlessly into the action on stage.
Of particular note is the virtuoso piano accompaniment of the hardworking Ms. Rich, whose only break from the keyboard (filled-in by Mr. Dietrich) is when she’s required to sing and dance (with alacrity) with rest of the troupe!
Cabaret is a perennial favorite of regional theatre, and this outstanding season debut by the San Jose Stage Company sets the bar quite high, indeed. Go see it and leave your troubles behind!
Update: Its run has been extended through November 6.
San Jose Stage Company
4 out of 5 stars (Very Good)
Directed by Rick Singleton
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Joe Masteroff
September 28, 2011 thru October 23, 2011
[Photo: Dave Lepori]