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Going Places In the Berkshires
CurtainUp Reviews Cabaret

June 29, 1998, Editor's Note: Since reviwing the show we've also seen the much (and justifiably) praised Broadway production. Having reviewed the Barrington Stage version of the musical, we decided to assign the main review to one of our able associates though we did do a Second Thoughts feature on it which made reference to the Berkshire production. Both those features are on archive: Cabaret in NYreview by Sylvie Reice. . . Second Thoughts on the review by Elyse Sommer.

Julianne Boyd's snappily directed revival of Cabaret opened at the Consolati Arts Center on the same weekend that Kander and Ebb's much hyped new Steel Pier is closing. During an interview at a "sneak peek" press presentation for that show the essence of the Kander and Ebb sound was summed up for me (by David Thompson who did the book) as "sassy with mustard." Unfortunately, Steel Pier did not deliver on this either in its music or story. Cabaret, on the other hand, is very sassy indeed and with a very generous touch of mustard not only in its music but in its two bittersweet love stories overshadowed by the impending horror of the Nazi rise to power. It's also a proven hit, having won 8 Tony awards and as many Academy Awards.

Like the 1972 film and 1987 revival, Ms. Boyd, focuses on the darker elements of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, using the 1967 original as her building block. The setting remains Berlin on the cusp of the Hitler regime and the fast-paced second act perfectly reflects the escalating pace of the Nazis' rise to power. The central story line is the love relationship between the apolitical, fast-living English singer Sally Bowles and an idealistic American writer who's as conflicted about his sexuality as Sally is about enduring love. The performances she has wrested from a cast of fresh young performers and two seasoned pros in the secondary leads is nothing short of spectacular.

What's more it's all done without the excessive miking we've become unhappily accustomed to--in fact, without any miking at all. Whether this is a matter of economic necessity or artistic choice or a little of both, you won't find the Big Belting Sound of a Liza Minelli but who cares. It's a pleasure to see a musical without ugly gadgets sticking out of anyone's ears or neck and voices which though very loud and clear sound as if they're coming out of a cave.

Becca Ayers' Sally Bowles is endearing and full of energy and, once she gets going, even her English accent, (guided by dialect coach Ariane Brandt), is better than acceptable.. If she's a tad too young and pretty to be totally convincing in conveying the jaded and shopworn side of Sally Bowles, the great feeling she puts into her delivery of "Maybe This Time" --(a number added from the 1972 movie) --and the defiantly exuberant, title number at the end do manage to capture the complete devil-may-care-but-still-vulnerable Sally. Christopher Yates as Sally's romantic opposite, is endearing and authentic as the more politically aware and high-principled Cliff Bradshaw. He is a sincere and likeable singer as well.

Jonathan Hammond plays the pivotal role of the Kit Kat club's a pervasive and serpentine presence. Under Ms. Boyd's sure direction, he offers his own distinctive persona instead of trying to be a Joel Grey look-and-sound-alike. The other denizens of the Kit Kat include the Kit Kat Girls, (Kristin McLaughlin, Marci Reid, Shannon Lee Jones and Tina Stafford), the nice German who turns out to be a member of the Nazi S.A., plus an assortment of others (several assuming multiple roles).

Choreographer Hope Clarke's dance numbers are full of the razzle-dazzle one expects of a Kander and Ebb musical. If the dancers aren't quite of the caliber of the hit show Chicago, the entire cast's performances are nonetheless very high-voltage. Jeffrey Fender's bright, glittering costumes are not only a feast for the eyes but aptly underscore the decadence of Berlin after the inflation of the early '20s ripped apart the country's very proper social structure.

Even though this is a scaled down version of a Broadway mega- musical, it would take too long to comment in detail about all the participants in this ambitious production. Yet no review would be complete without singling out Marni Nixon and Spiro Malas who so touchingly bring the secondary love story of Freulein Schneider and Mr. Schultz to life. If Ms. Nixon's face isn't familiar to you, it's because much of her reputation as a fine high soprano rests on her behind the scenes roles, dubbing in for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and for Natalie Wood in West Side Story. In Cabaret it's her soprano voice that moves into the background to make way for a more deep-throated sprechstimme. At first I found the occasional bits of the soprano slipping into this new-for-Nixon voice somewhat disconcerting, but as darker shades of the story surfaced, this occasional switch seemed made to order for the dual personality of the yearning-for-love spinster and ever-practical survivor she portrays so sympathetically and her rueful rendering of "What Would You Do." As for Herr Schultz, as played by Spiro Malas, he too couldn't be better. My only complaint about his rich operatic voice is that we don't hear enough of it in this show. His characterization of the Jew who while not denying his Jewishness is buried deep in denial about what it really means to be a Jew in Germany is right on target. His duet with Nixon at the end of Act 1 is in and of itself worth the price of admission.

All the as yet unmentioned technical credits are first rate: Donald Eastman's clever flip-around set design, Dareen R. Cohen's musical direction, Victor En Yu Tan's lighting design, Jim van Bergen's sound design and Michael Gibson's orchestration. The 5-piece band, while excellent, tended to overpower the voices in the early scenes and would probably have been more advantageously positioned at the rear of the stage or on some sort of platform. That quibble aside, this is more than likely to be one of the most enjoyable theater evenings of the Berkshire summer.

Before I conclude, a very special kudos to Barrington Stage for taking a much needed lead towards eliminating second-hand smoke from the theater. After sitting through the unconscionable amount of smoking by practically every actor in this past season's revival of Noel Coward's Present Laughter, it's nice to know that the same effect can be created with herbal, non-nicotine cigarettes. Actually, I'd go even a step further. Sure, Coward's characters smoked like fiends and nightclubs without cigarettes are almost like a fishtank without fish. However, cigarettes were just one element of the social mores. The herbal cigarettes worked well here, and mark a nice beginning to the end of an unnecessary bit of stage business. I don't think even a total absence of cigarette gimmickry would have diminished this show's authenticity. Related CurtainUp reviews and features you might want to check out:
Steel Pier
A Sneak Peek at Steel Pier
Sum Up of Theater Awards
Present Laughter
Based on Christopher Isherwood's book Berlin Goodbye to Berlin
Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Featuring Marni Nixon and Spiro Milas
Barrington Stage
Consolati Performing Arts
Sheffield, MA (413)528-8888
6/25/97-7/13/97 (opening, 6/27)

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