Monday, October 10, 2011

Cabaret, Great Lakes Theater Festival

First, we need to establish a couple facts. Great Lakes Theater Festival is an enormously talented company of theater professionals that has produced many fine shows, especially in recent years under the artistic direction of Charles Fee. And Victoria Bussert is a splendid director, the equal of anyone in this region.

Okay, now remember that first paragraph as we delve into their current production of Cabaret. Because for some reason known only to the cruel theater gods, those gifted people are staging a production that is so sublimely flawed, it almost beggars description. But describe it we will.

This Kander and Ebb musical, with a book by Joe Masteroff, is a gem that takes place in decadent Berlin just as Hitler is rising to power. Focusing on Sally Bowles, a goodtime gal and Kit Kat Klub star, the show is meant to show the tension of a society being torn apart, along with the lives of those caught in its unforgiving machinery. From the iconic title song to the slyly mercenary “Money,” this should be a sexy romp with a sobering kick of impending doom.

Instead, this production is dark, confusing and mostly unpleasant—but not unpleasant in the way the authors intended. The problems start with Jeff Hermann’s fixed set, featuring a five-piece band installed on a platform above a wall with three doors, sort of like a shrunken version of Let’s Make a Deal, but without Monty Hall out front and a Cadillac Eldorado behind door #3. These simple doors are evidently meant to designate different locations, with a light above each door that glows when the action takes place in that setting. At least, I think that’s the idea.

Strangely, a gaily-illuminated curtain of shiny Mylar strips is partly visible when those doors are open. This comes perilously close to making sense when the setting is the Klub, although why the performers aren’t doing their act in front of that curtain instead of three doors is anyone’s guess. But when the glistening curtain is glimpsed outside the door to Sally’s rundown room, one is only left to imagine a misguided but secretly festive boardinghouse owner who mounted a super-fabulous wall treatment in his scummy hallway.

(Okay, go back and read the first paragraph before continuing. I know I am.)

Musically and otherwise, the show revolves around Sally and the Master of Ceremonies at the nightclub. The MC should personify the sleazy sexuality and distorted morals of Germany, but Eduardo Placer takes very few chances and makes no interesting choices. Sure, he wears makeup and dresses scandalously, but so does your average weekend crossdresser and no one is paying money to see him. Unfortunately the costume is the most interesting element in Placer’s characterization, as he continually purses his lips and flings his arms skyward in an attempt to seem debauched.

The MC works with the Kit Kat Girls who are dressed unaccountably in a riot of monochromatic beige (and later black) panties and bras that look like they were snatched out of their respective grandmothers’ bureaus. If this is sexy Weimar Germany, give me the Golden Girls.

As Sally, the fiery performer Jodi Dominick is woefully miscast. Her singing ability ranges from serviceable to disastrous (especially in the final, sadly butchered rendition of “Cabaret”). Meanwhile, sharp-edged Dominick can’t come close to capturing the impish, fun-loving spirit of Sally that is necessary to make the whole show click. Instead, she seems a little pissed off that she has to pretend to be flighty and whimsical.

(Please revisit the first paragraph, one more time.)

The choreography by Gregory Daniels is a collection of improbable poses interspersed with faux-Fosse steps, executed with intermittent synchronicity.

Remarkably, even the entr’act music is screwed up by (you guessed it) audience participation, in which Placer brings up a man and a woman separately from the audience to dance with him. This cheap gimmick, a fixture of the corny stage productions at every theme park in the world, feels pitiful in this show. And it’s made even worse since Placer, breaking the almost non-existent character he’s created, cracks the same lame jokes with both people.

Director Bussert does not manage to squeeze one believable moment out of the interactions between Sally and fellow boarder, the clueless bisexual American Cliff (played by a bland Neil Brookshire).

The only time real emotion shows is when Laura Perrotta, occasionally overacting as Fraulein Schneider, falls in love and croons sweetly along with old Herr Schultz (a basically non-descript John Woodson).

Ultimately, in a last-minute bid for gravitas, the surprise ending reaches for a level of tragic resonance that the production up to then has not earned. So it feels forced and a tiny bit embarrassing.

To sum up, when Schneider and Schultz are the flawed highlight of Cabaret, it’s time to pack up your garter belts and run for the border.


Through October 30, produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th Street, 216-241-6000

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