Sunday, September 01, 2019

With ‘Cabaret’ at Olney, Even the Orchestra is Beautiful

Mason Alexander Park as the Emcee surrounded by the Kit Kat Girls
Photo: Stan Barouh

Over the past few years, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and hate-motivated crimes in the U.S. and around the world have been on the uptick.  Little has been done so far to stem the tide, which is disturbing if not frightening as we view this phenomenon through the lens of the rise of Nazi Germany in the early 1930’s.  The population at the time, unknowing of the horror that would eventually take hold, stood by and watched it happen. When it reached its pinnacle in the early 1940’s it was already too late.  #hocoarts

Today’s virulent partisan divide in our nation is allowing this ever-growing movement to fester. The question on many people’s minds is, could history repeat itself? 

With the superlative, near flawless production of Cabaret kicking off the Olney Theatre Center’s 2019-2020 season, we take a glimpse into that ghastly period in history where the darkness of evil seeped through the escapist veneer of frolicking decadence and burlesque.  

Under the astute direction of Alan Paul, making his Olney Theatre Center debut, the musical starts off sunny enough with lightheartedness, clever retorts and high camp.  Gradually the clouds metaphorically thicken, and by the end, the skies have blackened with the gloom from the inevitable Nazi takeover.  The final moments of the show are downright chilling. 

Says Mr. Paul, “It is about complicity, and what happens when citizens of 1930’s Berlin turn a blind eye to the rise of the Nazis. It has huge political overtones now as we think about what it means to be a citizen in this incredibly partisan and political moment.”

The plot that encompasses several sets of relationships among disparate individuals takes place with stirring drama.  The Kit Kat Klub, a decadent nightclub in 1931 Berlin, provides the escape, albeit temporarily, from the inescapable reality: the ominous political changes which are engulfing Germany. 

“Leave your troubles outside, exclaims the naughty Emcee in the opening number “Willkommen.” “So, life is disappointing? Forget it!  In here, life is beautiful... The girls are beautiful... Even the orchestra is beautiful.”  

Outside?  Not so much. 

Cabaret, a multiple Tony Award winner in 1967 including Best Musical, spawned many revivals on Broadway and London in addition to numerous tours 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 stylistically diverse catalogue of music. 

Well-known songs, such as the aforementioned “Willkommen” along with “Maybe This Time,” “Money,”  “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and, of course, the title song, have made the show endearing, and with Mr. Paul at the helm, the production at Olney is no exception.  It excels in an intricately staged, brilliantly costumed spectacle that showcases an abundance of outstanding performances by the leads and the ensemble. 

Bravo to Musical Director and Conductor Christopher Youstra and the talented musicians for their outstanding renditions of Kander’s score and to Katie Spelman for her creative choreography.

Wilson Chin designed an ornate set depicting the Kit Kat Klub that serves as the hub for all the action. Six large sparkling chandeliers adorn the stage with a large pentagon-shaped mirror reflecting Colin K.  Bills’ first-rate lighting effects affixed to a stage-wide crimson curtain the upstage. In front of it but still upstage, the aforementioned “beautiful” tuxedo-clad 11-piece orchestra is seated in a formal bandstand mode reminiscent of the swing and jazz bands of Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers.

Downstage there is a series of lit steps that effectively expands the performing area and adds depth to the action.  Scene changes through the use of moveable set pieces are accomplished seamlessly.  Several members of the audience sit at tables right on the stage to simulate the nightclub.
Gregory Maheu as Clifford Bradshaw
and Alexandre Silber as Sally Bowles
Photo: Stan Barouh
(I was told by a member of the production team that the set was designed in this manner after extensive research took place on how the typical Berlin nightclub of that era appeared to foster authenticity.)

The leads and ensemble are called upon to don countless period costumes in a vast array of styles—from ordinary house dresses to suits to pastel gowns to suggestive and gaudy burlesque costumes to Nazi uniforms. The Emcee alone wears at least a dozen creative pieces.  Costume Designer Kendra Rai was more than up to the task and should receive formal recognition for her exceptional work.


Aside from the eye-pleasing aesthetics and solid sound design by Matt Rowe, the entire cast makes this production soar with their acting and vocal talents. The show’s lead is Mason Alexander Park as the puckish Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub. Wearing macabre makeup and flamboyant and at times revealing costumes, the Emcee, the personification of unfettered sexual freedom, is inserted in multiple scenes to offer his take on events mainly through song. And it is clear that the mood of this commentary gets progressively darker over time to coincide with the plot.

Mr. Park possesses an excellent singing voice and shines in the opening number “Willkommen,” the hilarious “Two Ladies,” the lively standard “Money,” and the melancholy “I Don’t Care Much.”  He does a wonderful job in this role though I believe he can take the character even a little further over the top. 

"...an intricately staged, brilliantly costumed spectacle..."

Another lead is Alexandra Silber as Sally Bowles as the headlining British singer at the Kit Kat Klub.  Despite her singing adroitness, Sally seems to hold a job only if she sleeps with someone.  Sally meets an American writer Clifford Bradshaw who was traveling to Berlin and then fall in love, it but doesn’t end well.

Ms. Silber performs two iconic solos, “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret” with a resoundingly sweet voice.

Perfectly cast in the role of Clifford, Gregory Maheu, fresh off of his sterling performance in Once at Olney, is convincing both in his acting and singing as he commands the stage with his voice and movements.  Mr. Maheu’s singing prowess comes to the fore in the duet with Ms. Silber in “Perfectly Marvelous.”

Another love affair takes place between Fräulein Schneider, played by Donna Migliaccio, an elderly owner of the boarding house where Clifford resides and Herr Schultz (Mitchell Hébert), an elderly optimistic 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 tenderly. Ms. Migliaccio is an outstanding vocalist and is one of the show’s highlights. Her renditions of “So What,” “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “What Would You Do?” are emotionally performed with superb range.

For comic relief there is Fräulein Kost (Jessica Lauren Ball), a prostitute who rents from Fräulein Schneider where no member of the German Navy is safe from her lure. Ms. Ball does a fine job in portraying the character with the right touch of humor.

Tom Story as Ernst Ludwig, a man who had met Clifford on a train to Berlin and recommended him to the boarding house, is very effective in his role. He is later revealed as a Nazi and who warns Fräulein Schneider to drop her marriage plans. Mr. Story had turned in a wonderful performance in Olney’s recent production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.

Then there are the gender-bending Kit Kat Girls (Katy Tabb, Jessica Bennett, Lina Lee, Bridget Riley, Jessica Lauren Ball, and Louisa Tringali) and Kit Kat Boys (Connor James Reilly, Andre Hinds, Ben Gunderson, and Rick Westerkamp) who playfully sing and dance throughout, play other roles, and ably contribute visible energy to the show. 
Photo: Stan Barouh
While there isn’t an abundance of dancing in this musical with most of the work carried out by the Kit Kat Girls and Boys, the number “Mein Herr” with Ms. Silber and the Kit Kat Girls is a standout.

Surprisingly, this was the first time the Olney Theatre Center presented Cabaret considering the theatre’s 82-year existence and the popularity of the musical. It is an enjoyable musical on many levels that presents exceptional performances by the well-directed talented cast and ably supported by the technical and design teams.

Do come to the Cabaret, old chum, and leave your problems outside at least for a while. But please do not turn a blind eye to those problems looming outside lest history will indeed repeat itself.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Cabaret runs through October 6 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online.  

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