Regional Reviews: Palm Springs / Coachella Valley
Also see Robert's recent review of What the Constitution Means to Me
Christopher Isherwood chronicled his Weimar-era experiences as a struggling writer in the memoir-ish 1939 novel "Goodbye to Berlin," which was adapted into a play as I Am a Camera by John van Druten in 1951. The Broadway play and subsequent 1955 film adaptation both starred Tony-winner Julie Harris as Sally Bowles.
For the musical, Isherwood became Clifford Bradshaw, played here with a wonderful openness and relaxed masculinity by Marrick Smith. His Cliff arrives in Berlin beaming with excitable curiosity at the strange new world he has entered and its promise of adventure ahead.
On his first night in town, Cliff connects with the resourceful Ernst Ludwig (Ben Sears), a pragmatic landlady named Fräulein Schneider (Leslie Tinnaro), and the legend-in-the-desperate-making Sally Bowles (Cecily Dowd), chanteuse of the seedy boite The Kit Kat Klub where Cliff's one-time boy-toy Bobby (J Pablo Stewart) also works. Schneider's other boarders include sex worker Fräulein Kost (Erin Stoddard) and a Jewish grocer named Herr Schultz (Fred Frabotta), who harbors romantic feelings for Schneider.
Observing them all is the Emcee (Kristen Howe), who comments drolly on life at the club ("In here, life is beautiful! The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful") and beyond. It is one of the most iconic roles in the musical theatre canon and director Adam Karsten's casting choice is one of the few missteps in this generally solid and inventive production.
As originated by Joel Grey on stage and screen, the Emcee was a menacing rouge-cheeked marionette, leering and provocative. In the 1998 Sam Mendes-Rob Marshall Broadway revival, the role devolved to a new level of decadence in the Tony-winning no-holds-barred performance of Alan Cumming. Howe does not meet their challenge, nor does she bring anything new to the role. An attractive stage figure, but with variable vocal skills, she strikes poses and teases at naughtiness, but without any of the underlying malevolence that should make you uncomfortable in the character's presence.
Fortunately, the other performers bring strong voices and well-developed personalities to their characters. Dowd lets her Sally lean away from anything Liza and makes her "toast of Mayfair" a good-time girl you want to buy a drink. A strong singer working a bubbly Brit accent, Dowd imbues Sally with just enough vulnerability to make you care before letting her calculated choices push you away.
As much as Cliff and Sally seem like the stars of the show, it is the story of Fräulein Scheider and Herr Schultz that carries the heart of Cabaret. Tinnaro is an empathetic and naively optimistic Schneider. She sees promise in Cliff's arrival at her boardinghouse and rather than a resigned acceptance, her delivery of "So What?" is a pragmatic assessment of a glass half full. As her suitor, Frabotta is almost too much of a naïf, a pineapple-proffering Paddington Bear who you know will not survive the coming storm.
Playing for the brown shirt team, Sears is a semi-suave and affable hustler who turns suitably nasty when the politics move center stage. His temper is leavened, however, when serenaded by Stoddard, making the most of a frequently one-dimensional role, with the polemic ditty "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." It's the second rendering of the song, following a video played on a strangely anachronistic television console rolled on stage for a "march of time" effect that could have been more creatively handled with projections.
The most inventive elements of the night are thanks to choreographer Karen Sieber. She resists any urge to lift from familiar Fosse-imprinted screen moves and creates wonderfully organic dances that help underline pertinent plot elements. If her "Two Ladies" feels a bit timid, there are no restraints on "Money" with its riveting assault on the character most obsessed by the subject. The moves for "Mein Herr" eschew the usual finger-snapping and chair-slapping for a chorus of loose-limbed rag dolls jerking to the imagined touch of their manipulators.
Two other great musical moments feature the song "I Don't Care Much," nicely performed here by Howe as a subtle counterpoint to various breakdowns and disruptions happening around her, and Stoddard, upstage in smoky lighting, in a nicely period rendition of "Heirat" ("Married") in excellent German as an observation on the burgeoning Schneider-Schultz romance.
Over the years, Cabaret has leaned further into its prewar backdrop. The leavening effect of comedy songs like "Meeskite" or romantic ballads like "Why Should I Wake Up?" have yielded to more explicit displays of anti-Semitism sadly resonant with the present, as well as harbingers of the Holocaust. The closing moments of this production don't shy away from making a strong statement. If only there had been the will for the company to forego bows in favor of letting the final images linger unsettlingly with an eventually departing audience.
Cabaret runs through February 10, 2024, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City CA. Remaining performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.. Tickets are $83. For tickets and information, please visit cvrep.org or call 760-296-2966 , Extension 0.