By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
With its current production of Cabaret finally on the boards, the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts has achieved some major firsts for this perennial crowd pleaser by John Kander and Fred Ebb.
It is their first production of 2022, albeit a delayed holdover from a hurricane-plagued fall. It is also the first production to feature a live band in some time with the talented musical director Jefferson Turner conducting an eight-member ensemble listed as the Kit Kat Band. This adds incredible authenticity and appreciably enhances the level of talent on and off the stage.
It is also the directional debut of Bryce Slocumb, the very talented actor and singer, who shows a sharp eye for detail in this production. Under Slocumb’s deft direction the darker version of Cabaret – based on the updated 1998 Tony Award-winning revival – is on display.
This is now the standard version of Cabaret with much of its energy dedicated to exploring the highly sexualized nature of its characters and the immorality and decadence of early 1930s Berlin set in the time just before the popular uprising of the Nazis.
For Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, it is a knowing leap towards selecting works that are more daring and avant-garde.
As if to emphasize that leap, Jake Wynne-Wilson takes the audience on a wild, sexually charged and hedonistic ride in his role as the Emcee. Wynne-Wilson’s magnificent frame and chiseled features are an eye-pleasing feature in the production and his androgynous costuming emphasizes the fact that this Emcee is not your grandfather’s Emcee. The suggestive mousey role first played by Joel Grey in the original 1966 cast has been replaced by a pansexual satyr who delights in having his delights.
This production of Cabaret also continues a conscious path towards diversity and inclusion with its non-traditional casting of Chloe Marie in the leading role of Sally Bowles.
While Marie hits all of the right notes in her singing, her performance seemed marked by a conscious effort to play the role rather than to assume it. There were moments of clarity where Sally Bowles with her many show-stopping numbers (“Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr,” “Cabaret” and “Maybe This Time” originally added in the 1972 Bob Fosse-directed film) could have soared above expectations and interpolated a note or two with support from that live band. Overall, her performance was very good, just not as spectacular as to match the power and brilliance that was shining forth from Wynne-Wilson.
Based on Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical novel “Goodbye to Berlin” and the original John Van Druten play I Am a Camera from which it was adapted, Cabaret’s central character of Clifford Bradshaw is a narrative device. It is apparent he is attracted to other males, but he is threatened at the prospect of being outed, and carries on an ill-advised relationship with the pass as a straight man while
Matthew Raetz, who plays the pretty American boy attracted to both Sally Bowles and several of the boys at the Kit Kat Klub – Herman (Ben Fox), Victor (Kirkland Green) and Bobby (Garrin Mesa) – projected with confidence and bravado on stage. He plays a more than sympathetic character swept up in the times and grasping at a way to “fix” Sally when she and the country they are living in are, quite literally, spinning out of control.
The most tender exposition in the work is the love story exhibited between Herr Schultz (Ricky Graham), a Jewish fruit merchant and Fraulein Schneider (Laura Reinagel), the unmarried owner of the rooming house where Clifford, Sally and a host of other characters live.
Graham plays his role with warmth and the pairing with Reinagel is inspired. The character of Schultz is not revealed to be Jewish at first and so their innocent attraction to one another is a device intended to highlight the plight of the Jews living in Berlin whose humanity fell victim to the sweeping wave of antisemitism and nationalism. The book by Joe Masteroff goes further to indicate that the hate professed by the Nazis had to be coupled with the apathy of other Germans like Schneider. This was the reason behind the demise of the Weimar Republic and the establishment of Nazi Germany.
The two share the stage twice in the beautiful duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More (A Pineapple)” and the very sweet ballad “Married” in which Herr Schultz expresses his desire to take Fraulein Schneider as his wife.
Reinagel establishes her character’s ability to settle for what she can get first in “So What?,” where she accepts the poor, budding novelist as a tenant for half of what she might have been able to fetch. Later, she expresses her inability to fight the political power and social stigma of a relationship with Schultz in “What Would You Do?”
Aaron Brewer plays the role of the treacherous Ernst Ludwig to perfection. He is a man who possesses a number of ulterior motives which pull the American expatriate Bradshaw into his web of deception. Mandy Mueller, whose charming voice as Fraulein Kost is heard in the Act One closer “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” is a welcome addition to the Rivertown Stage. She plays double duty, also playing the role of one of the Kit Kat Girls, Fritzie, in the “Entr’Acte and Kickline.”
Another standout in the lineup of Kit Kat Girls is Emily Bagwill, who plays Helga. Her voice noticeably soars in several of the numbers with the other ladies and her skills as a dancer were quite evident. Bagwill is also featured opposite Wynne-Wilson in the comedic number “If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song).”
The remarkable set design by Cliff Price, coupled with Stephen Thurber’s impressive lighting design adds additional value to this production. The costume designs by Bryce Tuergeon are also superb. Kudos to Katelin Zelon for her fine work with choreography. Once again, enough cannot be said to praise the fine musicianship that accompanied the actors on stage. Turner’s work on piano and as a conductor in support is integral to the success of this work.
Based on the play and stories by John Van Druten and Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret, with book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and Fred Ebb, continues its run at the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor Street in Kenner. For tickets click here. For overflow tickets, click here. For more information, call 504-461-9475