Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
I recently saw that Theatre 55 was to stage Cabaret and decided it was time for me to revisit one of my all-time favorite shows while also making the acquaintance of this company. Theatre 55 has been around for several years, staging productions in which all cast members are age fifty-five and older, no matter the age of the character they play. I had heard good things about their work. Prior to Cabaret, shows Theatre 55 has mounted include Hair, Rent, A Chorus Line, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Rocky Horror Show–all shows with a youthful vibe and predominantly young characters. Perhaps that was part of why I'd shied clear of their work. I pictured a group of old-timers (knowing full well that I am one of them) trying to relive their young years by way of youth-driven shows. Nothing wrong with that, but I didn't feel drawn to sit in an audience watching it.
Cabaret seemed different. One aspect of Cabaret is the parallel tale of two couples at the crux of its narrative: one, a young American writer and a British nightclub singer living a life of gaiety in 1929 Berlin oblivious to the gathering storm of Nazism; the other a much older couple, a German matron who runs a shoddy rooming house and one of her borders, a Jewish widower (the above mentioned fruit-seller), both clinging to a chance at late-in-life love. The juxtaposition between the youth of one couple and the age of the other, and the way they deal with changes in the world around them had always seemed to me to be significant element of Cabaret. I was interested to see how that would be portrayed in a staging where none of the actors could appear visibly youthful.
So I went to Theatre 55's production and learned several things. One is that, at least based on this sample, they draw highly talented performers–both as actors and musicians–and director Richard Hitchler is an adroit storyteller, who is skillful at shifting between the two above narratives and the Kit Kat Klub where a lascivious ambisexual emcee presides over bawdy numbers that speak to the values of the era. Second, the Kit Kat Klub girls and boys, whose flagrant sexuality is typically embodied by young men and women, can still be sexually provocative when those bodies are 55 and up.
As far as the distinction between the older and younger couples, what happened watching Theatre 55's Cabaret was that age seemed to vanish as a factor. Yes, Cliff Bradshaw, the American writer, and Sally Bowles, the British songstress and impetuous lover, are still meant to be young in years, but it becomes easier to see that Sally's numerous affairs that always ended badly, and her struggle to maintain the fiction that she had something she could reasonably call a "career," are cloaked in a cynicism that made her old beyond her years. As for the older couple, Herr Schulz certainly is up in his years, but he maintains a naivete about the risk posed by Nazism hardwired into him. By necessity, he maintains belief that no one will distinguish him from any other German simply because he was Jewish. His is not the perspective of old men, but the perspective of innocents.
The most dynamic feature of Theatre 55's production is Rik Kutcher's mesmerizing performance as the Emcee. He is in control of every moment on stage, delivering the opening "Willkommen" with dazzling confidence, and continuing on with all the Kit Kat Club numbers–"Two Ladies," "Money," "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," and then a louche rendition of "I Don't Care Much," sung as Sally Bowles contemplates her choices. Kutcher takes the song, an exquisitely moody composition, and uses it to corrode any optimism remaining in Sally's life.
This is in contrast to Sally's earlier rendition of "Maybe This Time" in which she allows herself to consider that perhaps her string of bad luck will end and she might actually come out a winner. Sally is played by Prudence Johnson, well known for her numerous performances in regional concert halls and clubs, her frequent appearances on Prairie Home Companion, her recorded work, the stage musical Ten November, and other work spanning the past fifty years. She succeeds completely in conveying Sally Bowles' invented allure, her mock sophistication, and her willingness to use whomever she must in order to get to tomorrow. In addition to "Maybe This Time," Johnson nails "Don't Tell Mama," "Perfectly Marvelous," and especially the title song, which she begins with an angry growl, climbing up from the ashes of her latest disappointment, then, in the course of the song, convinces herself, if no one else, that the best possible life is the one that song describes.
Jeff Goodson, as Cliff, sings well enough, but has his work cut out for him against Johnson's Sally. He is tentative at the start but comes through with backbone in the second act, enabling him to finally rise against Sally's escapism. Brenda Starr is Fräulein Schneider, who epitomizes the will to survive even at the expense of her happiness. For her, survival is not based on stringing together illusion after illusion like Sally but in facing reality with all its ugliness. Schneider has two brilliant and powerful songs, "So What?" and "What Would You Do?" Starr struggles to convey the wistfulness inherent in the first of those but gives a fiercely raw delivery of the second. She is persuasive in allowing herself to be taken up with the possibility of romance, even a marriage, so late in life. Lawrence Hutera is terrific as her admirer, Herr Schultz, the Jewish fruit-seller, bringing the character vividly to life. He and Starr are delightful sharing the spotlight in "It Couldn't Please Me More," also known as "The Pineapple Song."
Lisa Ramos makes a strong impression as Fräulein Kost, another of Fräulein Schneider's borders, who makes her living entertaining sailors. She offers a lovely rendition of "Married" that creates a rare moment of tenderness. As Ernst, a man who befriends Cliff then draws him into treacherous work, Jeff Bieganek is less menacing than one expects. Mark Doerr conveys smoldering sexuality as Bobby, a man Cliff knew in London. The rest of the large cast do well as the Kit Kat klub boys and girls, performing their garish routines.
Cabaret is a dance musical, though dance is not one of the stronger points in this production. LaTia Childers' choreography smartly finds ways to stage movement for an ensemble that may not be up to the rigors of all-out dance, with the exception of Rik Kutcher's mesmerizing Emcee. That said, they do deliver a raucous dance number, complete with kick-line, to open the second act before redirecting that debauched energy into a chilling goose-stepping march.
Alicia Vegell's costumes serve the characters and the tawdry atmosphere well, and Amanda K. Gehrke does a great job as makeup designer, tarting up the Kit Kat Club crew, particularly the Emcee. The set design is fairly minimal, which at least in part is due to the compressed space as the show is performed around the onstage orchestra, but Tom Mays' lighting goes a long way toward providing atmosphere in lieu of elaborate setting. That orchestra, by the way, sounds terrific, and is conducted by Shirley Mier.
I am extremely glad I saw Theatre 55's Cabaret, in part because it remains a great work of musical theatre that holds up well to repeated viewing, and in part because I now know, firsthand, that this company is doing quality work, true to their vision of "enriching the lives of elders as artists, audiences and lifelong learners through theatre performance and education." Moreover, Cabaret's depiction of apathy in a cultured society that allows a brutal regime to take hold is also a powerful reminder of how much is at stake in our present state of affairs.
Cabaret, presented by Theatre 55, runs through February 10, 2024, at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please visit theatre55.org.
Book: Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood; Music: John Kander; Lyrics: Fred Ebb; Director and Producer: Richard Hitchler; Musical Director: Shirley Mier; Choreographer: LaTia Childers; Set Design: Michael Gough; Costume Design: Alicia Vegell; Lighting Design: Tom Mays; Sound Design: Scott Edwards; Sound Design: Marc Berg; Makeup Design: Amanda K. Gehrke; Stage Manager: Amanda K. Gehrke.
Cast: Jeff Bieganek (Ernst), Robert Borman (Victor), Catherine Brennan (Helga), Mark Doer (Bobby), Brian Driscoll (Max/Henrich), Thomas Ett (Herman), Heather Foxx (Frenchie), Jeff Goodson (Cliff Bradshaw), Lawrence Hutera (Herr Schultz), Prudence Johnson (Sally Bowles), Bebe Keith (Gigi), Susy Killeen (Texas), Rik Kutcher (Emcee), Lisa Ramos (Fräulein Kost), Pamela Scott (Fritzie), Robert Sime (Hans), Brenda Starr (Fräulein Schneider), Colleen Vickerman (Lulu).