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Cabaret — Shaw Festival — Festival Theatre

Shaw_Cabaret_WebGallery4Entering the Festival Theatre for Peter Hinton’s production of “Cabaret” at the Shaw Festival, you sense a big monolithic spiral staircase that sits on a large turntable center stage.

Hinton has already begun the show in a way. Stage right, actor Ben Sanders is carefully applying white-face makeup with red accents and black highlights that justify the name of his character, Klown, and that make Sanders look more like one of the porcelain dolls you might purchase at a New Orleans shop than a denizen of Barnum and Bailey’s. Bonnie Beecher’s extraordinarily complex lighting design focuses on Sanders while peripherally illuminating ghostlike figures who wander about the stage and staircase in varying levels of undress. Beecher’s lights are about a quarter up, but already you know darkness, shadows, and languidly ambient beings are going to be a constant part of Hinton’s concept. The staircase at this point is ominous but innocuous.

Typewriter keys, which will become a leitmotif, are heard. Gray Powell, playing the American writer, Cliff Bradshaw, is seen at a stage left desk, the staircase making him look distant and partially obscured, plunking out the first words of a story, the first words of the Christopher Isherwood collection on which “Cabaret” is based. Interesting touch. In the script Hinton is using, the one that was used in London in 1996 and is employed currently on Broadway, Bradshaw/Isherwood’s text usually comes at the end of the play. It makes more sense as a flash-forward at the beginning where it supplies context and sets both a mood and an expectation.

Narration gives way to the famous drumroll and caravan rhythms that signal the start of the “Willkommen,” “Cabaret’s” opening number begin and, with Beecher’s help again, everything on the Festival stage looks as if it’s covered in a patent leather sheen. All is crisp and glittery as Juan Chioran, as Emcee, also looking as if he’s been swathed in patent leather, begins his song, and the staircase turns to reveal the cabaret girls, who are beautiful, the cabaret boys, who are beautiful, and the cabaret orchestra, which is beautiful.

“Willkommen,” in all of its parts, is a walloping success promising excitement and sleek sophistication to come. Chioran, wearing a jacket with what looks like fins at the elbow that make him look like a giant spider, or perhaps more a large humpbacked lizard, and pants that are oversized at the waste and thigh but taper at the ankles, appears to be larger than life, a genuine ringmaster with human charm but reptilian aspect. His highly pomaded, combed to a razorback spike at the top adds to the lizard impression.

The “Willkommen” number is effective. A dark, smart tone is set.

Then something disappointing happens. The staircase, so good in animating “Willkommen,” seems to get in the way of most other scenes.

It is so large and so dominant that it leaves room only for small staging areas downstage center, left, and right, for performing the play. The scene in Cliff, en route to Berlin, meets his first friend, Ernst Ludwig, comes off all right. We are accustomed to seeing that in a cramped space. But subsequent scenes with Cliff and Patty Jamieson as Fräulein Schneider, or the nightclub scene with Ernst and “the toast of Mayfair,” Sally Bowles, seem crowded.

An irony is revealed at Hinton’s production proceeds. Book scenes, by Joe Masteroff, will more often than not play more poignantly than the musical numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb, particularly those that purport to commentary or introduce new material and a change in tone, because the staircase will overpower even the most evocative and potentially thrilling of choreographer Denise Clarke’s dance sequences while intimate exchanges between character take on a warmer, more focused, and welcome smallness. The staircase may dwarf the action in the tiny playing areas, but, thanks once more to Beecher’s lighting, the byplay and dialogue between Cliff and Sally and others will seem more immediate and more critical than the elaborate production numbers, some of which would be powerfully evocative if they weren’t upstaged by stage mechanics.

In the long run, Hinton may have outsmarted himself by asking Michael Gianfrancesco to built such a commanding structure. Large, important numbers, though well conceived by Clarke in terms of motion and dramatic use of the staircase, seem to sprawl, even when they are tightly organized, and skew your focus so you don’t know exactly where to look. The sheer size of each number becomes hypnotic in a way that make you take in the whole extravaganza rather than settle into appreciating the creativity with which Hinton and Clarke have attempted to illustrate the onset of Nazi influence or some other salient point that never becomes a sharp insight but remains a large, amorphous impression. Effect seems to outweigh story or content in both renditions of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” in “Money,” and in a scene in which you see various characters display their true political colors. You understand the portent of these scenes, especially the second reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” led by a marvelous Jenny L. Wright as Fräulein Kost, but they seem so big, you are not as moved or affected to them as you might have been if all had been kept to a smaller, more targeted scale. Expressionism of the Weimar kind loses out to total images that are difficult to break down into tinier details that would convey more. The staircase is a showman, and it allows Clarke and Hinton to create interesting patterns and stage grand pageants, but it takes away from the human story and the full dramatic impact Masteroff, Kander, and Ebb generously provide.

On the contrary, and once again ironically, the small moments in Hinton’s production provide the payoff.

The scene of the party Herr Schultz arranges at his Nollendorfplatz fruit store to celebrate his hasty but sincere engagement to Fräulein Schneider creates a good example.

Hinton stages the party so that any sequence that involves conversation or badinage takes place downstage center. Comings and goings of key characters are easy to follow, and various types of information are exchanged between the soon-to-be married couple, Cliff and Sally, and Ernst Ludwig who just returned from a political meeting.

Hinton keeps the party lively by having performers strewn all about the staircase as if they were congregating in different parts of Herr Schultz’s shop. The host is getting more than a bit tipsy on schnapps and is seen regaling several groups and urging them to have as good a time as he apparently is. The staircase, for once, is used to create atmosphere, possibly its best purpose.

Then, in a tight, spotlighted scene, Ludwig takes off his overcoat, and one sees for the first time the armband, red with a swastika encircled in white, that symbolizes the Nazi party. This in 1931. The Nazis are two years from taking control of Germany’s government. The effect is nonetheless chilling, as Masteroff deftly inculcates politics in a musical that heretofore mentioned current events but concentrated on showing the freedom, tolerance, and divine decadence of the Weimar Republic between the world wars.

Ludwig’s armband causes various reactions, but Fräulein Kost, after revealing to Ludwig that Schultz is Jewish, impresses the politico favor by singing the Nazi anthem Kander and Ebb supplied for their show, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

As in other productions of “Cabaret,” Hinton uses this time to show how many everyday Germans may also be Nazi sympathizers. The number has an effect, but one that is more intellectual than emotional. The darkness of Hinton’s staging also fosters a coldness. You appreciate all that just happened, Ludwig’s revelation of his affiliation more than Kost’s song, because it is done in intimate light while focus is primarily on the armband. The sequence would have been strong if your heart was as moved as your mind, but the staircase intrudes again because it distances the action and makes you see in full what is best shown in segments.

The following scene shows Fräulein Schneider in conversation with Herr Schultz the morning after the party. Her eyes have been opened to what might occur if she marries a Jew and the Nazis come to power German law may be unable to limit. She speaks to Schultz who reassures her that German decency will prevail, and they will weather any upheaval. Schneider remains unconvinced when a rock comes through the window of the fruit store, and her fears are reinforced rather than being allayed.

This scene, this exchange between a loving, confident Schultz and the equally loving but cautious Schneider, is the scenes that touches head and heart.

Given the order of the sequences, Masteroff, Kander, and Ebb designed it so emotions would be most heightened when two people, rather than a group, are frightened by a hostile act. But the degree of difference between the window shattering and Fräulein Kost rousing everyone to lend voice to Nazi sentiments, is profound. Your level of care doesn’t go up smoothly from 30 degrees when Ludwig removes his jacket, to 45 degrees when Kost sings, to 75 degrees when Schneider’s shop is vandalized. It stays level at about 30 degrees through Ludwig’s divesting and the “Tomorrow” number, then rises markedly to 90 degrees when John Lott’s sound design simulates the breaking of glass.

Even Gianfrancesco’s scenery reacts. A ripping sound is heard, and the solid black background has an uneven tear, emitting light, and depicting the shattered window.

You may feel revulsion during Kost’s singalong. You suddenly sense the immensity and rapidness of the change that may come. But the sensation is minimal compared to the reaction to the simpler, more direct message delivered svia the Schultz’s window. Your heart breaks, and you feel horror, when Schneider and Schultz’s tete-a-tete is disrupted, and decided, by the rock’s impact, underscoring how much small scenes trump grand ones.

The less-is-more potency of the intimate make Hinton’s production seems disjointed. You may admire the architecture of both the staircase and the numbers for which it’s used, but the effect is a dry, cold one. Clarke’s clever patterns and witty unfolding of her chorus as they descend the staircase go for naught.

Hinton’s staging seems strange and more aimed to dazzle you than it is to entertain or touch you.

In most recent productions of “Cabaret,” Emcee, symbol of decadence turned to something else after the Nazi incursion, is the focal figure and the starring role. Alan Cumming, in 1996 and today, keeps the Sam Mendes version of “Cabaret” moving and in motion. (Cumming and the current Broadway cast have a monster of a time keeping things on keel these days given the unredeemingly execrable performance of Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles.)

Juan Chioran certainly cuts a notable figure. He presides brilliantly over “Willkommen” and is, when the staircase doesn’t get in his way, effective in “Money” and “Two Ladies.” His turn in “If You Could See Her (Through My Eyes)” is especially good. Judith Bowden’s costume, described earlier, has the lizardlike effect to make Chioran’s Emcee sinister and slimy. He is certainly not the congenial improviser Cumming gets to be in New York.

The Emcee takes a place as a symbol and a commentator. His ultimate act may surprise you, in a different way from the Mendes version that stars Cumming. Chioran’s Emcee represents an alternative attitude that is sweeping across Berlin from Bavaria and other regions. He is the embodiment of 20th century German history that includes the liberality of Weimar but includes aspects of the Kaiser’s era and the Nazis to come. There is a danger and an off-putting nature to Chioran’s character, and the actor plays it well.

Hinton’s “Cabaret” puts the star spotlight more on Cliff and Sally Bowles, as Hal Prince’s original 1966 staging did.

If anyone, the often overlooked Cliff, the narrator of the story, becomes the Shaw’s focal characters. Sally is an equal lead with Ludwig, Schneider, Schultz, and Kost being strong supports while the Emcee is an occasional commentator.

The great thing about “Cabaret” is you realize quickly how Hinton’s, Mendes’s, Prince’s, Rufus Norris’s and Bob Fosse’s diverse approaches to Masteroff, Kander, and Ebb’s musical are all plausible, Fosse’s for film taking the most liberties in adaptation. Hinton tells Masteroff’s story, and does so effectively, but it is his book scenes with Sally and Cliff that matter more than anything that takes place at the Kit Kat Club or in Herr Schultz’s fruit store.

Gray Powell is a stolid Cliff who can show the character’s randy and naughty side when eyeing boys and being eyed at the Kit Kat Club and display total seriousness and maturity while trying to manage his and Sally’s lives.

Powell embodies the kind of young character you see in ’30 movies. He is youthful, but he is also confident and competent. He can joke truthfully about preferring awful lodgings to expensive quarters, and he can be justifiably reviled by the thought of consorting with Nazis, even before 1933. (Masteroff and Hinton book make a distinct point of showing Cliff reading “Mein Kampf” to learn more about German politics. Hinton uses the book quite interestingly in one of his production’s grander numbers.)

Cliff’s decency, his Menschlichkeit, becomes the soul of Hinton’s “Cabaret” and is the reason Powell’s quieter scenes with Sally, Ernst, and Fräulein Schneider play so strongly. Powell, the writer, witness, and reporter gives point of view to the Shaw’s “Cabaret.”

I cannot believe I am just getting around to saying how absolutely terrific Deborah Hay is as Sally Bowles.

Hay captures Sally’s flightiness, and the pleasure she takes at being a freer spirit than anyone in a Berlin where being the most notable human oddity is quite a job and quite an honor.

Through all of Sally’s “dahlings,” posing, and prairie oysters, Hay shows the survivor who is serious enough about life to make sure she lives it to the fullest extent available to her. Sally’s delusions and oblivious to the important remain, but Hay craftily lets you see these as a defense that allows Sally the glamor and decadence she craves rather than a sign of total dimness or self-destruction.

Hay’s Sally is a tease and conniver who will get most of what she wants, even if she isn’t sure from day to day what that is, or what her position as most carefree of the nightclub crowd might cost.

Hay lets you see the brains and calculations that help Sally survive. There’s something going on behind the fun and the desperate need to evade anything that seems real, responsible, or ordinary. This is a woman who has made a choice to have fun and be the life of the party. Sally has other gifts, but she will haul them out later when Berlin’s non-stop revelry ceases, as it is destined to do, sooner and more savagely than Sally, or native Germans, might consider.

I am of the mind that when doing “Cabaret,” “Gypsy,” “Guys and Dolls,” or a number of shows involving presentational numbers that Sally, June and Louise, and Adelaide have to be portrayed as riveting performers that keep attracting audiences. Hay fulfills that. Her “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr,” and “Maybe This Time” are all led well and show Sally to have the goods to be a top entertainer if she worked harder at it.

Like much of Hinton’s production, Hay’s rendition of the title song, “Cabaret,” began more strangely than was good for it.

Yes, we know Sally is distracted by her relationship with Cliff, her pregnancy, and her restoration to the star spot at the Kit Kat Club. Hay begins “Cabaret” by being woozy. The audience knows why, but I thought the swoony, unbalanced opening of “Cabaret” was too much and may have tipped some information that can be reserved for when Cliff asks Sally about her fur coat. It makes Hay look self-conscious (as opposed to Sally) and puts her in the awkward position of being a victim of Hinton’s overthinking.

Hinton and Clarke are to be congratulated on conceiving a clever “Don’t Tell Mama,” that features Sally Bowles’s grandmom and bother as dancers in the Kit Kat line.

Deborah Hay is one of the highlights of this year’s Shaw Festival in general, pairing this complete and intelligent performance as Sally Bowles with a beautifully nuanced performance as a schoolteacher bordering on spinsterhood in Tennessee Williams’s “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.”

Patty Jamieson is not the billed Fräulein Schneider, but this veteran of the Shaw rallied to give her character delicacy and poignance while stepping for the indisposed Corrine Koslo. Jamieson was particularly effective, singing “What Would You Do?” in response to Cliff’s suggestion that she face down the Nazis and assert her dignity as a business owner, a woman of feeling, and a German.

Benedict Campbell is a sweet, loveable Herr Schultz who takes pleasure in crooning about pineapples and who asks for nothing more than to run his shop — “Italian oranges. Delicious.” — and spend his evenings with Fräulein Schneider.

Campbell makes Schultz particularly friendly and affable. He is obvious a man who likes to talk and who enjoys a good joke. His flaw is believing because he was the third generation of his family born in Germany, he understands the German psyche and cannot be considered being any other but a German by the Nazis or anyone else.

The confidence and lack of concern Campbell gives Schultz represents what many Jews thought as Nazi allegiance increased. The actor does express pain and shock as so many guests at his party join Kost in “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Jay Turvey is engaging as Ernst. You can see easily why people would succumb to Ludwig’s oily charm and how he could be an integral cog in the Nazi rise to power especially when its comes to recruiting people to his cause.

Turvey’s Ernst never loses his poise. He is irresistibly roguish when he meet him and makes the character’s political allegiances a mighty surprise. His delightful and benign manners mask the ardor he has for the Nazi position and how hard he works for this ruinous cause. More even than Hay as Sally, Turvey gives you reason to think, by his smooth portrayal of a likeable man, one who enjoys all of the hijinks of the Kit Kat Klub including its boys, his character is carefree and given to whim and fancy. Yet it is he who is employed in such a despicable effort.

Jenny L. Wright is a funny and winning Fräulein Kost whose profession as a prostitute does not endow her with strong feelings about the happiness of other people. She is particularly jealous of Jamieson’s Schneider and given to pettiness.

Wright endows her Kost with a lot of depth and a survivor’s mind that can outthink Sally’s, Kost surviving as cockroaches do, Sally being more like a cork that always manages to stay afloat.

Hinton’s “Cabaret” takes some interesting turns. One notable choice is for the Emcee and most of the Kit Kat and other “Cabaret” characters to embrace Nazism as it rises rather than rejecting it or being indifferent to it, as happens in most past productions of “Cabaret.” Usually, directors opt for many of the characters to become victims of the impending Holocaust, as Herr Schneider and Sally’s gay friends will udoubtedly be. Hinton shows the majority keeping up with times, whether an era supports a free-wheeling boite like the Kit Kat Club or turns neighbor against neighbor in smothering Fascism.

“Cabaret” runs through Sunday, October 26 at the Festival Theatre at the Shaw Festival, 10 Queen’s Parade, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. “Cabaret” is performed in repertory, and the showtimes are scattered. Tickets range from $113 to $35 CDN and can be obtained by calling 800-511-SHAW (800-511-7429) or by going online to http://www.shawfest.com.

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