Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see Christine's recent review of Tick, Tick... Boom!
Angela Weber Miller's scenic design, complemented by projections designed by Smooch Medina, represents a deeply impressive transformation of the Ruth Page Center's space. Weber Miller encloses the audience in a cavernous train station with a series of heavy steel girders extending all the way upstage. The band is set behind a scrim stretched across an enormous circular element that offers an art deco flair, but also suggests a train bearing down on the characters. A spiral staircase upstage right and a steep set of stairs upstage left, each topped with a small landing, afford spaces for surveillance and claustrophobic liaisons, as well as reminding the audience that the glittering figures that stomp and strut across the Kit Kat Klub's stage ultimately descend into their squalid dressing room and apartments.
Bill Morey's costumes match Weber Miller's success, piece for piece. The cast is wonderfully diverse in body type, and Morey demonstrates a clear vision for each actor and each character. A particularly appealing technique is the way the costume design renders demure dropped-waist silhouettes and broad Peter Pan collars in sheer fabrics over racy, sequined burlesque bras, garter belts and tap pants.
Morey's work in the arresting staging of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" deserves special mention. Members of the ensemble parade out in a scene that suggests one of the bizarre rituals fabricated by the Nazis to celebrate a twisted version of an imagined German past. Morey's striking silver costumes could easily have detracted from the menacing effect, but with each piece for each actor, he hits exactly the right note.
Brenda Didier's choreography adds vibrant life to the set and shows off the costumes to their considerable advantage in every number, whether through imparting a fierce, desperate edge to the large ensemble numbers or having Sally believably use the movement of her body to convince Cliff to let her stay over the course of a single song.
Patrick Chan's lighting design strategically–and effectively–evokes the 1972 film at well-chosen moments, yet puts its own stamp on the production, using hot, unforgiving white light regularly to keep the audience mindful of the accelerating pace of decay. Madonia's music direction takes a similar approach. Without at all disguising the cast members' strong voices, there's a frayed edge to the arrangements, as though all the top and bottom of each character's range is a little worse for wear after too many long, hard nights in a row.
As for the cast, Josh Walker plays the Emcee with more mania than the menace that many renditions have leaned into. Although Walker's performance is outstanding, that take on the character occasionally makes the Emcee's silent appearances high up somewhat less dramatically clear, though it's likely that this very minor issue requires little more than some directorial tweaks to pacing.
Gilbert Domally offers a subdued, rather internal Cliff. This approach develops the character's struggle with his novel more fully than in some productions, and it activates his relationship with Sally in an interesting way. Rather than simply falling inevitably for the Toast of Mayfair, we see how she draws him out of himself and into the lives of others.
Erica Stephan is terrific as Sally. She's confident enough in her knowledge of the character and the appeal she brings to the role to let weariness guide the performance. In the context of this take, Sally's childlike machinations and ignorance of the politics unfolding around her are transformed into glaring privilege. This, in turn, makes good on director Michael Weber's claims of the contemporary resonance of the show in the political moment that agonizingly drags on not just in the U.S., but globally.
Mark David Kaplan and Mary Robin Roth do wonderful work together as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. Roth carries the whole history leading up to Berlin, 1930, in the power of her voice and the stoop of her shoulders, while Kaplan charms even as his performance underscores the dangers of unwarranted optimism.
In the supporting cast, Josiah Haugen's understated arrogance builds and builds tension until the moment he removes his coat to reveal the Nazi arm band at the engagement party. Neala Barron's voice is an amazing force, and she skillfully weaves threads of ruthless self-preservation into the comedy of Fraulein Kost's contention relationship with her landlady.
The entire ensemble brings the Kit Kat Klub to life, not just in their scripted numbers, but also in fully realized, individual characters whose love affairs, rivalries, and friendships come through in the casual and not-so-casual embraces and the way they crowd and make way for one another.
Cabaret runs through February 12, 2023, at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts 1016 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please call 773-777-9884 or visit PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.