When I took my seat at The Hypocrites’ production of Cabaret last night, a fellow sitting next to me struck up a conversation. He giddily revealed that he was a Cabaret virgin — he hadn’t even heard the score before. I was excited for him.
Upon conclusion of this wildly re-imagined and uncomfortably overeager production, I wondered if he’d fully popped his Cabaret cherry. Oh, boy. This ain’t your grandmother’s Cabaret. This production turns the sexuality up so high it practically boils over, and takes so many liberties with John Kander and Fred Ebb’s score it’s barely recognizable at times. To be honest, I’m not sure if what we saw was a compelling adaptation of a classic musical, or a half-baked experiment.
I’ve never seen the Sam Mendes/Rob Marshall production that some have been (unfairly) comparing this production to — though I’ve heard the 1998 cast recording and have seen the numerous clips to get a feel for what it was like. And having seen a few other productions in the past that were more traditional representations of the original Hal Prince model, I realize and appreciate how this impressionable show, which focuses on the nightlife at a seedy Berlin club during the brink of WWII, can be manipulated to serve a director’s vision.
For that reason, I don’t fault The Hypocrites for taking a risk. Director Matt Hawkins’s ideas are compelling and, on occasion, quite powerful. He works hard to set the atmosphere way before the first “wilkommen”: when you enter the DCA Storefront Theatre’s warehouse space, a rag-tag band is rollicking away behind the round, elevated stage. The cast enters from the catwalk above, sliding down fire poles. Harsh lighting blazes against exposed brick. High-top tables with chairs complete the look. It’s an ideal venue for this show.
However, as much as Hawkins invests in establishing a tone, there’s still one glaring problem — there’s nothing pulling us in. The Emcee, who is played by the droll Jessie Fisher (a woman) has zero connection with the audience in her opening number, and things don’t improve. She’s our gateway into this world, but Fisher seems more interested in acting as a passive observer, ready at a moment’s notice to hand off a prop or play an instrument to propel another character’s story. Seems this Emcee would be more at home playing “The Mute” in a production of The Fantasticks than hosting a gritty Berlin nightclub. All the garters and bustiers in the world can’t substitute for the necessary charisma and sexual danger.
As Sally, Lindsay Leopold looks great in the part and radiates selfishness and desperation — but has little vulnerability. And Michael Peters as Cliff does all he can with a role that’s always been a bit of a passive snore. (He has a lovely singing voice, though.)
I’m going to be frank: The irreverence to John Kander and Fred Ebb’s score in this reworking bothered me. For example, the number “So What?” — where Fraulein Schneider explains her pragmatic viewpoints on life — is a great introduction for this pivotal role. However, when you have an actor lazily strumming a minor chord on an acoustic guitar while an otherwise capable actress (Kate Harris) struggles to find her pitch, you get a sound that vaguely resembles the tune in question. Same with the title number. What should be an explosive number for Sally to unravel at the seams is performed in a way that’s both lackluster and oversold.
As much as this production tries to mix things up with reduced, folksy music arrangements, nothing new is revealed. It’s just different — and different isn’t necessarily better or good of even necessary.
In short: perform the numbers as Kander and Ebb intended.
Please don’t misinterpret what I mean by that: I’m not saying you need Liza Minnelli and and a huge, brassy pit band. What I’m saying is don’t tinker with the basic rhythms and harmonies of the score. Theo Ubique, up in Rogers Park, is a prime example of a small group that has rethought arrangements for smaller spaces, while keeping the spirit of the score intact. Here, I think Kander and Ebb were woefully misrepresented. I would even go so far as to say Hawkins and musical director Mike Przygoda didn’t trust the material.
Aside from all that, there are some great, inspired moments — particularly in the darker final third of the piece (there are two intermissions). Hawkins has cast a little boy (the adorable Kyle Erkonen) who appears throughout the show as the Emcee’s “associate.” In the final act, the boy serves as a chilling metaphor for the indoctrinating of Nazi propaganda, providing for a stinging conclusion.
I also found the staging of that naughty little ditty “Two Ladies” rather innovative. Here, the number showcases Berlin in all its Weimar-era hedonistic glory, with the cast forming a copulating tableau. Shocking. Maybe too shocking, as a sweet elderly couple siting in my row threw their hands up at this point and left in the middle of the number.
You can’t please everyone, I guess.
“Cabaret” plays through May 23 at the DCA Theatre. More information here >