Thursday, July 24, 2008

Life is a 'Cabaret' at the Eastern Slope Playhouse

The Eastern Slope Playhouse has been transformed into the seedy and oh-so-sensual Kit Kat Klub for The Mount Washington Theatre Company’s lively and entertaining rendition of “Cabaret,” which is running — except Monday — at 8 p.m. through Aug. 2.

Director/choreographer Clay James’ production of “Cabaret” is an immersive experience. Even before the show begins, actors have already been mingling with theater patrons and chatting them up in character.

In the opening number, “Willkommen,” the emcee (Jesse Luttrell) welcomes the audience to the club, and the musical itself and ventures into the audience as he introduces the men and women of the cabaret. It kicks the show off with a bang and is the sort of pull-out-all-the-stops number you expect much later in a show. The tone is set for a show that isn’t afraid to be flamboyant, a bit crass and very sexual.

“Cabaret” is set in Germany during the 1930s as the Nazis are coming to power and alternates between the stage shows at the Kit Kat Klub and the romance of its star performer Sally Bowles (Liz Clark Golson) and Clifford Bradshaw (Grant Golson), an American writer seeking inspiration.

At its core, “Cabaret” is a love story that turns tragic with the inevitable arrival of Nazism in Berlin. The first act is buoyant and lighthearted as Sally leaves the Kit Kat Klub to live with Cliff. Cliff and Sally allow their love to blind them to everything around them as they join in Berlin’s non-stop party.

There’s a sweet parallel love story involving Cliff’s landlady Fraulein Schneider (Megan Thomas) with one of her tenets Herr Shultz (Craig Holden). Although their love story is secondary, Thomas and Holden’s endearing performances make it the heart of the play.

Clark Golson and Golson, who got married this summer, have a playful chemistry, with Golson playing straight-man to Clark Golson’s impetuous and naïve Sally. Clark Golson has the big shoes of Lisa Minnelli to fill, and while she doesn’t match that high watermark — few could after all — her take on Sally is fun and, when it has to be, quite affecting.

Those familiar with the 1972 film adaptation of the original 1968 Broadway staging of “Cabaret” are in for a surprise, because James’ production is more in line with the 1998 revival of the show. That reworking of the show turned up the volume on the show’s innate sexuality and bisexuality.

The emcee of the Kit Kat Klub was originally played by Joel Grey in a Tony and Academy Award winning performance. The character was re-imagined by Alan Cumming in a Tony Award winning performance. Cumming’s take was more sexualized and boisterously over-the-top than Grey’s. Luttrell follows closely to Cumming’s interpretation, but that is not a criticism. Luttrell has a vibrant and mischievous presence that is a exhilarating whenever he comes on stage.

The cabaret song and dances such as “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Two Ladies” and “Money” are full of infectious energy and are inventively choreographed by James. The subversive natures of the lyrics are well matched by the provocative dance routines that feature numerous dancers often in elaborate synchronized routines. Everything is delivered with an impressive precision.

The songs that take place off the Kit Kat stage may seem dull in comparison, and in some cases, with more conventional ballads like “Maybe This Time,” it seems the production is dragging. But these quieter “real life” performances are in their own way just as irreverent as those of the Kit Kat Klub and are a nice balance to the musical’s more outrageous moments.

As the real life scenes turn bleak — the first appearance of a swastika arm band is a shocker — so do the scenes at the Kit Kat Klub. When the curtain rises on the second act, the tone has shifted and James’ production handles the change well and earns its emotional payoffs.

The Kit Kat Klub performances, which in the first act were frivolous, begin to reflect the growing atmosphere of fear and persecution. “I Don’t Care Much” and the title song, sung by Luttrell and Clark Golson, respectively, are delivered with heart-wrenching bravado, and their one-two punch will stir even the most stone-faced.

The production’s final scenes become progressively darker, as what was previously just an ominous feeling becomes a harsh reality. For a show that starts out so frothy, it may be a shock for some how profoundly and deeply affecting the show’s final moments are. There is a real sense of pain that gives the whole show an extra weight and makes “Cabaret” more than just light escapism.

For tickets call the box office at 356-5776 or visit

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