Sunday, July 20, 2014

CABARET - A SHOW BEYOND ALL EXPECTATIONS

 
Cabaret. Book by Joe Masteroff. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Music by John Kander.Directed by Jim McMullen. Musical Direction by Rhys Madigan. Choreography by Shasha Chen. Canberra Philharmonic Society through special arrangement with TAMS WITMARK MUSIC LIBRARY INC. Erindale Theatre.   July 10 - 26, 2014

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

 
Angel Dolejsi as Emcee
 

It was with great expectations that I went to see Canberra Philharmonic’s production of Kander and Ebb’s musical, Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s  Berlin Stories. My expectations, not preconceptions, were not based on the Bob Fosse film with Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles, Joel Grey as the Emcee or Michael York as Isherwood’s alter ego, Clifford Bradshaw. Nor were they aroused by the excellent and well-deserved reviews of colleagues, who unanimously have enthusiastically praised Jim McMullen’s vibrant, disturbing and powerfully imaginative production. No, my expectations were engendered by a visit to the Jewish cemetery in the Czech Republic’s second largest city, Brno. On my grandparent’s grave, and like so many other headstones throughout the cemetery, there are also engraved the words “In memory of” and the names of relatives who were victims of the Holocaust and whose bodies would never be honoured with dignified burial.
Mat Chardon O'Dea as Clifford Bradshaw
 

Kander and Ebb’s musical is set in Berlin at the time of Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Seen through the eyes of newly-arrived American novelist, Cliff (Mat Chardon O’Dea), Cabaret tells the story of aspiring  cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Kelly Roberts), the love and lives of the older generation , Frau Schneider (Ros Engledow) and Herr Schultz (Ian Croker), the decadent world of the seedy Kit Kat Club and the sinister rise of Nazism.  Cabaret is a tragic tale of lost innocence, futile love and a nation on the brink of racial, ethnic and human degradation. It is the mournful saga of a world that no longer exists. It is a tragic account of hope, vanquished by history’s cruel twist of fate.
Angel Dolejsi, Kirsten Haussmann and Beth Deer in "Two Ladies"
 

And did Philo’s production of Cabaret meet my expectations? Absolutely. If anything, they surpassed them beyond my wildest imagining. Here is a production that will linger in the mind for years to come. Every number from Wilkommen to Life is a Cabaret is a hit. Every character is drawn with such earnest concern for truth. Every element of production from Jim McMullen’s direction to Michelle Adamson’s stage-management, from McMullen and Ian Croker’s set design to Hamish McConchie’s lighting, from Miriam Miley-Reid and Christine Pawlicki’s costuming to Shasha Chen’s choreography, from Rhys Madigan’s Musical Direction to Peter Barton’s audio design has been thought through with meticulous regard for period, style and theme.
Kelly Roberts as Sally Bowles and the girls of the Kit Kat Club
 

What I did not entirely expect was the high level of performance from every character in this production. As the standard of musical theatre in Canberra continues to astound, audiences have come to expect an impressive level of performance. Philo’s production of “Cabaret” surpasses expectation and raises the bar even higher. Excellent casting has made this production a performance tour de force.

In a production as uniformly excellent as this is, and blessed with an ensemble as tight and talented as are the girls of the Kit Kat Club, the patrons and the principal performers, it is worth noting the high standards reached by some of the principal actors. The success of this musical in large part rests on the casting of the Emcee and Sally Bowles. In this respect Philo has triumphed. Angel Dolejsi’s Emcee is your likeable buffoon, chameleon in his shift from camp to vamp, seductive and slyly sexual, and yet with the inner sadness of the clown within the Kit Kat costume. In the final image of the Auschwitz inmate, wearing the Yellow Star of the Jew, high above the stage the audience is shocked by a stroke of ingenious theatrical interpretation into understanding Cabaret’s tragic message. This is where McMullen’s imaginative vision and Dolejsii’s performance fuse the crumbling era with the impending tragedy.
Kelly Roberts as Sally Bowles

Fragile, vulnerable, the ex patriate in search of love and admiration, Kelly Roberts is the perfect Sally Bowles. Here is inspired casting. From the soulful longing of Maybe This Time to the defiant resolve of the title song, Cabaret, Roberts is magnetic with a voice that can tug the heartstrings or excite the passion. Effective use of the follow spots brings the audience directly into her experience and we share her confusion, her longing and ultimately her resolve to defy the inevitable fate.

As the writer Clifford Bradshaw, caught up in the fearful events of the approaching cataclysm, Mat Chardon O’Dea brings the ideal tone of innocent naivety to his performance. He plays the foil to perfection as a world he cannot fully understand whirls about and engulfs him.
Ian Croker as Herr Schultz. Ros Engledow as Fraulein Schneider

The sentimental favourites are without doubt Ros Engledow and Ian Croker as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. These two experienced troupers command the stage: Engledow with her stiffly German sense of propriety and harshly powerful voice and Croker with the charming gentility of the European Jew, who also remains oblivious to the consequences of the frightful rise of Nazism. There is also excellent support from Dave Smith as questionable courier, Ernst Ludwig and Kitty McGarry as the sailor’s comfort, Fraulein Kost.

My only quibble is with Tomorrow Belongs To Me. McMullen has chosen to deliver this as a song of idealistic hope, rather than the threatening anthem of fascism. As the Nazi banners unfurl, I would have preferred this song to swell from its earlier rendition into a reprise of fanatical fervour, but that is a personal interpretation and in a production as uniformly intelligent and superbly staged as this, it is a small quibble. I did miss the smoke-filled, sweat-aromatic atmosphere of the divinely decadent Kit Kat Klub. Fake fags are a poor substitute, but the rules are the rules and we are left to use our imaginations.
"Mein Herr" at the Kit Kat Club
Sally and the Kit Kat Dancers

Canberra Philharmonic’s production of Cabaret will stand as one of the great standouts on Canberra’s Musical Theatre scene. Above the stage, the outstanding orchestra offers the reprise tunes as the enthralled audience leaves the theatre, aware that they have seen a Cabaret of the highest calibre. Director and conductor, Jim McMullen, sits at the side with a plume in his headband.  This Cabaret is a real feather in the cap for Canberra Philharmonic and the team. Don’t miss it!

 
"If You Could See Her" Emcee and Gorilla
All photography by Shae Waite

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