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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Come to the Cabaret at the Hippodrome

Like many successful musicals, Cabaret, which is now playing on the Hippodrome stage, entertains with excellent songs and staging, but navigates through a layer of darkness as part of the plot.  Historical events or serious social issues are frequent backdrops to these types of productions.  The Sound of Music, Rent, Avenue Q, Carousel and Spring Awakening come to mind as other examples.

Randy Harrison (center) stars as the Emcee Photo: Joan Marcus
In Cabaret, we have the onset of Nazi Germany hovering over the story just as the naughty Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, played extraordinarily by Randy Harrison, frequently hovers over the action from a catwalk above the stage.  All the action transpires under his watchful eye and  at times is injected into various points throughout.  It’s an interesting concept that links the story lines together. #hocoarts
The plot that encompasses several sets of relationships among disparate individuals takes place with stirring drama while the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightclub in 1931 Berlin provides the escape, albeit temporarily, from the stark reality, which is engulfing Germany and ultimately the world beyond its doors. 

Leave your troubles outside, exclaims the Emcee in the opening number “Willkommen.” “ So, life is disappointing? Forget it!  We have no troubles here!  Here life is beautiful... The girls are beautiful... Even the orchestra, is beautiful. 
Outside?  Not so much.  Not with the ominous political changes poised to occur.

Cabaret is a six-time Tony Award winner in 1967 that spawned many revivals on Broadway and London in addition to numerous tours (this production is being presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company) and the popular 1972 movie.  With music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, Cabaret, which was ultimately adapted from the book Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood, is distinguished by its sterling catalogue of music. 
Well-known songs, such as the aforementioned Willkommen” as well as “Maybe This Time,” “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and, of course, the title song, have made the show endearing, and the production at the Hippodrome is no exception.  

Under the direction of BT McNicholl and original direction from Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, the Hippodrome mounting excels in an intricately staged spectacle that showcases an abundance of outstanding performances by the leads and the ensemble.
Robert Brill’s set design is not as aesthetically gorgeous as one would see in many musicals but it is very clever and functional in its simplicity.  A stage-wide but narrow-in-depth set represents the boarding house with several doors in a row denoting the main entrance and individual rooms outside of which most of the action takes place.  Other scenes away from the boarding house also occur on that portion of the stage thanks to effective lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari. 

The illumination, except for several cabaret numbers performed by the talented and limber Kit Kat Girls and Kit Kat Boys where a bright spotlight shines, is often maintained at a rather dim level to symbolize the reality of the characters’ relationships and the looming darkness of the world outside.
Above the stage is a catwalk with two spiral staircases on each side where performers use to descend to the lower stage.  That is the locale for the orchestra/Kit Kat Klub band, which is comprised, in part, of ensemble performers who double as musicians. 

In the middle of that level is a large transparent box, which serves as a frame for cabaret-style blinking lights. That box is deliberately tilted, which, in my view, signifies the world is askew and off center.  It also figures prominently in “Entr’ Acte,” a number that kicks off the second act where most of the Kit Kat Band crams the box to perform.
Unquestionably, the entire cast makes this production soar with their acting and vocal talents. The show’s lead is Randy Harrison as the puckish Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub.  Audience members may recall his role as Justin on Showtime’s Queer as Folk from 2000-2005. 

Matured but still youthful and more buff since those days, Mr. Harrison gives a tour de force performance with his astonishingly strong vocals (“Wilkommen,” “Two Ladies,” “Money,” “I Don’t Care Much”) and comedic moves including ambling into the audience at the beginning of the second act to playfully dance with a couple of audience members.   
Wearing ghoulish eye make-up and bright crimson lipstick, Mr. Harrison is called upon to don a wide array of William Ivey Long’s creative costumes from undershirt/boxers garb, to a storm trooper outfit, to drag, for his burlesque-style character.  He performs the role with relish.

Co-starring is Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles as the headlining British singer at the Klub.  Despite her singing prowess, she seems to hold a job only if she sleeps with someone.  Sally meets an American writer Clifford Bradshaw and then fall in love, it but doesn’t end well.
Ms. Goss performs two major numbers, “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret” with a resoundingly sweet voice.

As Clifford, Lee Aaron Rosen is convincing both in his acting and singing.  His muscular vocals come to the fore in the duet with Ms. Goss, “Perfectly Marvelous.”
Another love affair takes place between Fräulein Schneider, played by Shannon Cochran, an elderly owner of the boarding house where Clifford resides and Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson), an elderly fruit shop owner.  Things go adoringly well until Fräulein Schneider learns that her beau is Jewish and the conditions in Germany are too dangerous to consider marriage.  A brick thrown through his store’s window was the last straw and sadly, she breaks off the engagement. 

They play their roles with sensitivity and charm, and their performance of “Married” is done movingly.
For comic relief there is Fräulein Kost (Alisin Ewing), a prostitute who rents from Fräulein Schneider where no member of the Navy is safe from her lure. Ms. Ewing does a fine job in portraying the character with the right touch of humor.

Also, Ned Noyes as Ernst Ludwig, a man who had met Clifford and recommended him to the boarding house, does well in his role. He later is revealed as a Nazi and who warns Fräulein Schneider to drop her marriage plans.
Then there are the Kit Kat Girls and the Kit Kat Boys who sing, dance, and play instruments throughout and ably contribute visible energy to the show.  Kudos go to Michael Gibson for overseeing the orchestrations.

This is an enjoyable musical on many levels that presents outstanding performances by the well-directed talented cast and ably supported by the technical and design teams.  
So come to the Cabaret and leave your problems outside.

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes with an intermission.
Cabaret runs through May 1 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit Ticketmaster or the Hippodrome Theatre.

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