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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Cabaret & Main
"We're making a party starring everybody and me." So sings the Cabaret & Main company that's celebrating the Williamstown Theatre Festival's 50th Birthday. It's something of a big family party that's turned its informal let down your hair, let's put on a show get-togethers into a big gussied up blow-out in a hall big enough to hold a crowd.
The WTF Cabarets began more than thirty years ago as impromptu late night performances by visiting actors and interns at a nearby hostelry. With most theater goers heading straight home after an evening performance at the theater, these increasingly popular songfests maintained their intimacy. But, in keeping with the special sentiments surrounding a fiftieth anniversary, the Festival decided to launch its season by putting this night owl special event into the 520-seat Adams Memorial Theater for a three-week run.
As evident from the enthusiastic audience at the matinee, the early to bed crowd is delighted to have a chance to be in on the fun of all this talent coming together and to titter at the in your face humor of Lewis Black, who's been the wisecracking Cabaret host for nine seasons. Not that this opportunity doesn't come at a price, mainly the sacrifice of the intimacy and spontaneity that was endemic to the late night shows.
To create an authentic cabaret flavor, set designer Michael Carnahan, has given the front section of the orchestra a club aura, with people seated at tables and chairs. Anyone who's been to New York's Studio 54, will recognize the little lamps that were part of the site specific setting for the hit musical Cabaret (and still there for the revival of Assassins). The two-level scaffolded set, atmospherically lit by Rui Rita, accommodates James Samplinger's band on the main playing area. Upstairs, there's a "Green Room" area from which some of the singers descend to do their numbers. This further establishes this Cabaret's link to a big Broadway show look.
The big show look, big band sound (despite the small size of band) and the emphasis on box office drawing guests is probably needed to handle the shift to a carefully orchestrated prime time run that must sell lots of tickets. Under Christopher Ashley's brisk as usual direction, Black's brief comic routines and the dozen singers (not counting the terrific apprentices) zip through some twenty well chosen, varied musical numbers so that it all plays out in two hours, including an intermission.
If the second week program can be taken as a standard for the entire Cabaret & Main, it won't really matter when you go since the best parts of the show are attributable to the core cast: Alix Korey, Janine LaManna, James Naughton, Sara Ramirez, Carol Woods and Terrence Mann.
Woods has a big belting voice that could reach the back of the house without amplification. Johnny Davenport and Eddie Cooley's "Fever" sung by Korey, LaManna and Ramirez was, for me, the high water mark of the first act. These sensational ladies were equally on the mark in their solos. Terrence Mann proved himself to be a nimble-fingered relaxed piano player, at one point playing accompanist as the apprentices took their turn in the spotlight.
James Naughton followed up one solo in his familiar relaxed style with a second that demonstrated a Danny Kaye-like speed-singing virtuosity. The fact that he introduced his material with some background chatter, pointed up that the show would have benefited greatly from more of this talk and sing mix. Actually, Black's audience appeal notwithstanding, I think Naughton would have been a more ideal host, substituting pertinent to Williamstown anecdotal material for Black's stand-up humor with its reliance on the "F" word for laughs. Such anecdotal chit-chat and introducing each performer and singer by name might have given the two hours the cohesion of Scott Siegel's popular Monday night Broadway By the Year Series at Town Hall (click here for details).
As for the guests, David Hyde Pierce, whose uptight psychiatrist I will no doubt continue to love in countless reruns of the now ended Frasier show, failed to make a strong impression. Perhaps his appearance here will serve as a warmup for the Broadway musical, Spamelot in which he as well as Sara Ramirez are scheduled to appear. Dana Reeve's "Some Enchanted Evening" was an interesting and well sung arrangement but it was a case of material that works best in a smaller venue; ditto for Christopher Fitzgerald's rendition of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "One For My Baby."
In deference to the cabaret format, audiences are allowed to bring refreshments bought at intermission back to their seats. Still, even with drinks and nibbles, the second act had me checking my watch a few times and wishing the choreographer had been given at least as big a part in the proceedings as Starbucks (Black's references and an overlong ensemble number with Starbucks props had me hunting around the program for a Starbucks sponsorship credit).
As with so many shows I've seen in this venue -- it's always a thrill and a half to see so much talent assembled on one stage and sets constructed in just a few weeks and on a modest budget. This can-do enthusiasm is amply present in Cabaret & Main.
A consumer note: While sitting in the table and chairs cabaret section might seem appealing and doesn't cost more than a regular seat in the front section, I'd advise trying to get a seat a bit further back. The band is small but loud and since the tables are not level with the stage, the first row especially, will have you craning your neck uncomfortably.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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