“Cabaret” is lots of talk and little action. The musical, playing this week at the Saybrook Underbrook Theater, gets the look right but fails to follow through with enough oomph or sex appeal.
Based on “The Berlin Stories,” a novel by Christopher Isherwood, “Cabaret” was written by Joe Masteroff, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb respectively. It first played at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1966 and then revived in 1987 on the stage of the Imperial Theatre. The show centers around the sleazy Kit Kat Club in 1930s Berlin. The club serves a metaphor for the depravity of the city, described by Schultz as “tawdry and terrible.” The Nazi occupation casts a shadow over the love affair between Sally Bowles (Molly Karlin ’04), the nightclub’s main attraction, and Clifford Bradshaw (Dan Freeman ’04), an American author. Their doomed relationship is mirrored by a more comic but no less tragic one between Cliff’s landlord, Fraulein Schneider (Maggie Wittlin ’05), and a German Jew, Herr Schultz (Joshua Stern ’06).
For the Yale production, the Underbrook theater space has been transformed into the Kit Kat Club. Although simple, the set is ideal — bright lights line the stairs and walls, and there are ominous railings in the background. Round tables with tap lights scattered among the seating give a nightclub atmosphere and incorporate the audience into the action. Under the direction of Lisa Siciliano ’05, the effect is enhanced by members of the cast who come up and try to seduce audience members to buy either chocolate cigars or a night with one of the entertainers. While some of the actors are fantastic, and it’s fun to be pandered to and flirted with, this is nonetheless about the steamiest the show gets all evening.
The musical numbers are as catchy as ever, and the sexily dressed orchestra does a very respectable job up in the balcony. It’s only unfortunate that the enthusiastic musical accompaniment often drowns out the voices of the stars.
The emcee (Christopher Burke ’03), the shameless bisexual narrator whose role — made famous by Alan Cumming’s performance on Broadway — is to draw in the audience, often carries the show. But in this production he fades into the background; he just isn’t quite extravagant enough. Burke starts off unsure of himself and his balance, and though he gains confidence during the course of the show — and shines in “If You Could See Her” — he remains on the quiet side for much of the show.
Thankfully, Karlin and Freeman project better. Although Freeman doesn’t add much real depth to his character, his Clifford is appropriately all-American and clueless. Karlin’s performance, on the other hand, is delightfully naughty. Her British accent is the most convincing and consistent in the musical, and she’s one of the few who can sing in character. Although over-the-top at times, in numbers like “Cabaret” she adds a musical flair and showmanship that the show needs.
Wittlin has a great sense of comedic timing but doesn’t have as good a hold on her German accent as she does on her acting — it comes and goes, and disappears altogether when she sings. Stern is sincere as her silly-but-resolute counterpart and seems to have as much passion for his Italian oranges (he’s a fruit seller) as he does for her. Other notable performances include Allison Goldberg ’06 as the the whore Fraulein Kost. Goldberg’s acting was genuine and her singing voice pleasing.
The costumes are fabulous, with leather, lace and black fishnet all over the place. The cabaret girls look like a Victoria’s Secret catalogue brimming with garter belts and thigh-highs, and the cabaret boys wearing naughty sailor boy outfits — or scarcely anything at all — with heavy makeup look impressively androgynous.
The choreography has a lot of hip-gyrating and butt-slapping; numbers like “Money” are especially well-choreographed, if unevenly executed. Though some of the gestures are vague, it is the lack of consistency amongst the cast members that is the main drawback here — a few of the dancers appear distinctly bored.
Considering that a travelling version of the Broadway show went up at the Schubert Theatre in New Haven in December, its reappearance in Saybrook makes comparisons inevitable and unfortunate for this production. It is a pity that a show with so much potential and so much available talent did not quite manage to convey the vibrancy and energy that “Cabaret” is all about. Though a fun show with all the key elements in place, “Cabaret” ultimately fails to sizzle and seduce, leaving the audience lukewarm at best.