Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Review: A Volatile and Dangerous CABARET Invades La Mirada

Jeff Skowron as the Emcee (center) and the company of Cabaret.
All photos by Jason Niedle

Even if all they do is take the expected route, most productions of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret are effective. Emphasize the sex and decadence rampant in Berlin during the end of the Weimar era as Hitler was coming into power and the show predictably succeeds in driving home its point – that distractions like the Kit Kat Klub helped people ignore what was happening politically until it was too late.

But that isn’t this Cabaret.

Everything about director Larry Carpenters blistering production of Cabaret is volatile in a way you’ve not seen before. An androgynous Emcee in face paint and a dress is familiar, but a tough guy Emcee in combat boots and a dress literally stalking the audience with every pounding step? That’s original. In this world, a knee through a chair isn’t just a choreographic move but a simulated sex act; a kick line isn’t beautiful but vicious; and a children’s song sung by a puppet isn’t innocent it’s horrific, rousing infantile listeners to almost demonic proportions.

No, a smiling musical theatre song and dance show, it isn’t. And because of that, this Cabaret is a bombshell – rough, harsh, enticing, and never more than one beat away from abject terror. It’s a musical for today’s populace who, like the Germans refusing to acknowledge their world was changing in the worst way possible, are seeing a political climate that looks eerily familiar to the 1930s. It’s a musical for people who don’t like musicals because it has something powerful to say and it says it loudly by awakening the rebellious streak in all of us. Yes, art can imitate life and, in doing so, call attention to issues we cannot and must not forget. There is no way you’ll miss the point of Cabaret.

Based on Charles Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin, and its later stage adaptation by John Van Druten, I Am a Camera, it recounts Isherwood’s own experiences living in Berlin in the 1930s and the characters he meets there. Bert Convy played the writer in the original 1966 Broadway production, and the 1972 film version of the story starred a 30-year-old Michael York. The film also made Liza Minelli a star for her portrayal of nightclub singer Sally Bowles, and Joel Gray appeared as the Emcee both in the film and on Broadway, (in the original 1966 production and the 1987 revival).

Jeff Skowron and company

For McCoy Rigby, it is Jeff Skowron who anchors Cabaret as the Emcee. Well-known to Southern California audiences as an actor who digs deep for his roles, he is virtually unrecognizable, turning in a career-high performance that is unlike anyone you’ve seen do the role before, both in look and in attack. Dressed in an array of dual gender costume pieces (by David Kay Mickelsen) that fly in the face of anything close to convention, he represents more than simply the embodiment of all things sexual. There is a tangible sense of danger whenever he is on stage.

Carpenter uses that danger to the show’s advantage. Cabaret has two kinds of scenes – those that take place inside the illusory world of the Kit Kat Klub and those that happen outside in the real world (like the train station, Cliff’s apartment, Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, and Herr Schultz’s fruit shop). For Carpenter’s staging, even the real life scenes occur within the metaphorical reaches of the club.

Scenic designer John Iacovelli creates a stunning optical illusion with a series of geometric frames set askew. Carpenter stages his club personnel to watch the real life scenes silently from the periphery, as if to say, in Germany, someone is always watching. This active observation has a chilling effect as we see them encroach more and more on the characters until everything reaches the tipping point. Josh Bessom’s sound design further emphasizes the change as air raid sirens and other loud intrusions become more frequent.

Skowron moves in and out of both worlds, playing several additional small but critical roles at turning points in the story. In the club he is bold and unfettered; in the real world contained and almost deadly still. The driving intensity in his performance reaches an emotional pinnacle in Act II’s “I Don’t Care Much,” which becomes not just a torch song but something more, a bitter acknowledgement of the reality beneath the illusion. There is a storm brewing in his tortured voice and, alone on stage under a single spotlight, the moment is electric (lighting by Steven Young).

Zarah Mahler as Sally Bowles

Zarah Mahler also attacks the role of Sally Bowles. Rather than the default ‘little girl lost in search of the next party’ you often see, she plays a more interesting side of her personality – that of a survivor, aware of the danger around her but sidestepping it as best she can. She’s still damaged but what is so unique about her performance is the way she expresses Sally’s pent-up rage in the only place she can – on stage when she’s performing. The progression of her frustration gives her an arc the character doesn’t usually have and a dynamic presence that leaves a lasting impression.

Even Fräulein Schneider (Kelly Lester) and Fräulein Kost (Erica Hanrahan-Ball), roles that can be throwaways in lesser hands, are infused with depth and insight. They are also women who have found a way to survive in a man’s world (a growing Nazi world) like Sally, but the cost is great. For Schneider, it means giving up her last chance at love with a kindly Jewish grocer (Jack Laufer) and for Kost, selling herself and selling out in order to scrape by.

Jack Laufer and Kelly Lester

Lester, a trained soprano, surprises by using her lower register to evoke a powerful range of emotions. Hanrahan-Ball is calculated, brittle, and the bullet the rest of the characters don’t see coming. Christian Pedersen (Cliff Bradshaw) learns that lesson the hard way.

Musically, it’s a hot show, thanks in part to the way musical director & conductor David O propels it forward with his band. They’re set upstage behind a curtain that flies up when they play and every time they appear, they come out guns blazing.

The score is a feisty mix of jazz and blues, warped vaudeville, and more traditional sounding musical theatre songs presented within the frame of German cabaret. Its sound was rougher than its French predecessor, smoky and low with a strong satirical bent in the material. This cast has the style down pat.

There is moment in the score when the instrumental unravels into a kind of cacophony that can best be described as a musical scream. When a musical director can make an image like that come to life as a reflection of what the characters are going through, you know you’re watching someone who understands how to use music as a powerful tool. It’s an art, people, and not everyone can do it. Few realize how important a musical director is to a production. This is an example of one of the finest.

Over and over again, Cabaret continues its grinding assault on your senses. Choreographer Dana Solimando fills her dance numbers with brash, overtly sensual, and sneakily comic moves. Her instincts are whip-smart, grounded, and her dancers execute every single one with unwavering precision.

January 19 – February 11, 2018
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd.
La Mirada, CA  90638

Jeff Skowron, Zarah Miller and company

Jeff Skowron and Kit Kat Klub dancers

Zarah Mahler (center) and dancers

The company of Cabaret

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