Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: June 16, 2010
The Reich Stuff
Wit's End Players accentuates the Nazi menace in the musical-drama Cabaret
Director David Witanowski of the Wit's End Players has long shown an aptitude for darker musical shows. No other local company has mounted productions of Sweeney Todd, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Assassins. So if Witanowski is going to essay John Kander and Fred Ebb's Cabaret, a more familiar item than those previous three, you know he has to favor the edgiest interpretation ever seen at local venues. It's currently on the boards at the New Times Theater at the New York State Fairgrounds.
It's enough that Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, on which the show is based, reminds us that the decay and corruption of Weimar Germany led to the rise of Nazism. Here we flash-forward to images of the death camps, with victims bearing yellow stars and pink triangles.
Witanowski signals early that he knows much of the visual imagery in Cabaret comes from the cinema. The lowlife Kit Kat Club borrows substantially from Josef Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930), except that the girls seen here are prettier and thinner (who's complaining?).To recreate some of the feeling of Expressionism in Berlin of the Weimar Republic, Witanowski has worked with set designer Navroz Dabu to recreate the skewed windows and doorways found in such items at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). The much-admired Dabu was injured badly in an automobile accident before the set was completed to his specifications, which means that what we see is even bleaker than intended.
In thinking of the characters in Cabaret, it's often difficult to separate them from wellknown performers who have played them before, especially in Bob Fosse's 1972 film version, but we have to. Fosse, we regret to report, has been dead some time now, and his conceptions no longer rule, just as Yul Brynner no longer owns the King of Siam, who is now played with a full head of hair.
Clifford Bradshaw (Rob Fonda) is a whitebread aspiring American novelist from Pennsylvania who has come to Berlin circa 1931 to live, while starting his manuscript, mainly because it's cheap. He lives in a low-rent apartment run by lonely, middle-aged Fraulein Schneider (Susan Blumer), who keeps company with a sweet-natured fruit vendor, Herr Schultz (Bill Molesky). Another tenant, Fraulein Kost (Bethany Daniluk), entertains sailors in her room for short periods. On the train into Berlin Clifford meets the ambiguous Ernst Ludwig (Witanowski himself), who recommends the writer visit the Kit Kat Club for a little naughty escapism. While there Clifford encounters a fey young English girl, Sally Bowles (Danielle Lovier), who seems to be living on a precipice. Later Ernst will ask Clifford to take advantage of his American passport by smuggling in small packages from Paris for an unnamed "good cause."
Then there's the most iconic character in the show, the white-faced Emcee (Garrett Heater): amoral, cynical, ingratiating and insinuating. Of all the things that go right (not everything) in director Witanowski's reinterpretation, Heater's Emcee is the most satisfying. Long known as a light comedian, Heater brings a kind of jackin- the-box quality of surprise, inserting himself suddenly when you don't want to see him. He's also nastier than many previous Emcees, as in the mordant "If You Could See Her As I Do," with Danielle Nash in a gorilla mask. Better still are Heater's powers as a chameleon that allow him to slip into a series of unexpected characterizations. With shapely, shaven legs that kick high, there's a moment where you can't tell him apart from the girls.
A much greater risk is the characterization of Sally Bowles, from which the iron-lunged showgirl of Liza Minnelli has been banished. In the pre-musical version of the story, John Van Druten's adaptation of Isherwood known as I Am a Camera (on stage 1953, film 1955) the great Julie Harris portrayed Sally as vulnerable if plucky, and both childlike and selfdeceiving. At her entrance Danielle Lovier's Sally looks like a debauched baby, or a live illustration from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books, but with smeared lipstick. This is meant to shock, and it does.
Lovier won much applause locally while still in high school, as well as a scholarship from the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) organization. Still an undergraduate at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, Lovier is a younger, therefore more tragic, Sally than we're used to seeing. Her commitment to Witanowki's vision passes the test early on when she bravely quaffs a "prairie oyster" containing a freshly cracked raw egg (ugh!). That vision follows Isherwood's original stories in which Sally is not really the writer's love interest but rather an incarnation of a doomed dark gaiety.
Vocal pyrotechnics do not come in Lovier's repertory, and some of her early numbers are disappointing, but she saves everything up for the finale, the title song, "Cabaret," with bravado merging into tears. Not only is hers moving where others have been simply brassy, but it grows out of a coherent understanding of the character.
The only real romance in Cabaret is also doomed, that of the gentile Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, who turns out to be Jewish, even as he proclaims himself a real German. Bill Molesky mines gold out of lines meant to be heavily, dreadfully ironic, and genuinely seems to be in love with Susan Blumer's Schneider. Last seen as a comic mother and son in Simply New Theater's James Joyce's The Dead, they know well how to play off each other. Blumer projects that her less sympathetic character understands the depth of her loss.
Bethany Daniluk uses excellent vocals to portray a more three-dimensional Fraulein Kost than we're used to seeing. David Witanowski's brusque Ludwig still startles us with what he's about, even when we know what's coming.
Despite the Kit Kat Club's louche reputation, it boasts an on-stage orchestra in formal wear, led by Bridget Moriarty, which emphasizes the links to Kurt Weill in John Kander's score. Judy Bova's disciplined choreography factors in the naughtiness, especially "Two Ladies," with Julia Berger and David Cotter.
Wit's End Players' credibility among local companies can be seen in the casting of the chorus, which includes SALT Award winner Jimmy Curtin, and SALT nominees Julia Berger and Chad Healy. Others with prominent speaking and singing roles include Andrea Colabufo, Danielle Nash, Maggie Osinski, Kaleigh Pfohl, Chloe Tiso and Daniel LaCombe. As the Emcee says, they are all beautiful. But they're all doomed to enter the most horrifying epoch of the 20th century, as this production never wants us to forget.
This production runs through July 3. See Times Table for information.