The nightclub is presided over by the “Emcee,” a character of questionable gender generally played by a man. The role made Joel Grey famous and has become a kind of sinecure for Alan Cumming over the last 20 years, though the two actors approach the character quite differently.
But this is Stray Dog, and that pack never ceases to surprise us. Lavonne Byers, one of St. Louis Theatre’s most popular performers, is the Emcee, and she couldn’t be better. This isn’t the first production to switch genders, but if you haven’t seen it done this way, you’ll find the choice gives the whole production a freshness it was lacking, and for my money (‘money, money, money’), she owns the show. With slicked back short hair and clad in variations of S&M gear, she is both sexually voracious and ambiguous. She uses a voice that ranges from a growl to a purr, and she is simply splendid.
Mostly, this is the 1993 London revival version of the show first produced in 1966. The main difference I noticed from the newer version is that drug use is played down at Stray Dog—we only see Sally Bowles (Paula Stoff Dean) do one line of cocaine, and I don’t recall the Emcee shooting up, but I could have missed it. Even so, this is not the ‘Cabaret’ we saw last year at the Rep. It incorporates an orgy in a shadow play, a number (‘Two Ladies’) about a threesome, and clear evidence of the juvenile lead’s bisexuality in a kiss with a chorus boy and an overt reference to a hookup the two had in London.
The story that began the journey to ‘Cabaret’ was written by Christopher Isherwood, who was, in fact, in Berlin at the time the Republic was crumbling and he was a bisexual aspiring writer. Represented here as “Cliff Bradshaw” (Paul Cereghino), he has published one book, but is having trouble getting started on another. He decides a change of scene might help so he is traveling in Europe, thus his journey to Germany by train where he meets Ernst Ludwig (Michael Brightman), a genial smuggler who helps him find a room in his own boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (Jan Niehoff). That evening, Cliff visits the Kit Kat Klub, also on Ernst’s recommendation, where he meets Sally who is headlining the show (and not incidentally sleeping with the owner, the violently jealous Max played by Keith Thompson). When she’s fired, she ends up convincing Cliff to let her move in with him.
Other tenants include Fraulein Kost (Deborah Sharn), a snarky prostitute who entertains sailors—lots of them—to make rent money, and Herr Schultz (Ken Haller), an elderly Jewish fruit seller who has his own stand and a crush on the landlady. Cliff gets involved with Ernst’s smuggling racket because he’s not making enough to live on by writing or tutoring students in English. The boarders create a perverse kind of family as all their lives intersect each other, culminating in a party to celebrate Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz’s engagement. However, politics rears its ugly head when Ernst reveals a Nazy armband and events become truly creepy as the group segues into ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me.’ Kost, still angry with Fraulein Schneider for threatening to evict her because of her “job,” rats out Schultz as a Jew. What goes on at the Kit Kat Club reflects the events in the boarding house as things grow more sordid and ugly until the inevitable end of their fool’s paradise.
The abilities of the performers do vary, so some characters are more effective than others, but Byers never makes a false move after roping us in with ’Wilkomen,’ and Dean is very close to perfection herself. She has an amazing set of pipes, and while she works at Stray Dog a lot, this is the first time I’ve seen her as the romantic lead in an iconic musical and she is entirely up to the challenge. If her rendition of the title song, the last before the finale, doesn’t break your heart, then you may not have one. Cereghino does what Cliff needs to do: Be a visible narrator through whose eyes we observe what’s going on and whose words of warning go unheeded by those who don’t want to believe what he knows is coming.
Niehoff looks too young to be the elderly landlady and doesn’t seem world-weary enough for the role either. After all, she represents the “typical” German who finds it easier to turn away than to take risks. On opening night, she and Haller, who does sing very well and has a very funny drunk bit, were fun to watch even though I didn’t sense much chemistry. Conversely, the “boys and girls” of the Kit Kat Klub are marvelous entertainers and a major asset to the show. Despite the occasional ripped stocking, they all seem rather wholesome, at least in the beginning, but I suppose audiences do require a bit of eye candy. Byers conveys the sense of attractive evil in spades, while remaining an ominous figure of mystery to the very end when she wears a different kind of uniform.
The musicians are located above the stage and sound good. Some of the arrangements feel original, even startling. Chris Petersen is music and vocal director Lights by Tyler Duenow are a work of art, creating various moods from joyful abandon to imminent doom. The unseen star is the choreographer, Zachary Stefaniak, who has adapted the dances for both dancers and non-dancers to wonderful effect. Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s many costumes are excellent, except will someone please find Fraulein Schneider a better wig? The one she is stuck with looks like a hand-me-down from ‘Mama’s Family,’ and it’s distracting.
Justin Been has outdone himself with direction that not only brings out some great performances, excellently paced, but he and Stefaniak incorporate choreography into set changes in the simple but evocative space designed by Robert J. Lippert. These use stylized movements, but there is always a focal point, usually a performer, to draw attention away from the actors moving scenery. In the performance itself, perhaps the ensemble’s most memorable and disturbing moment comes when a kick line seamlessly morphs into a goose step and the dancers exit with arms high in a Nazi salute.
The original mounting of ‘Cabaret’ had a bare set but for a mirror that reflected the audience back to itself, a forced weltanschauung. That theme is echoed in a number the dancers perform with mirrored trays. These background characters also help bring the audience into the world of the club by interacting with us before and during the show. Who is observing whom? As Walt Kelly said through Pogo, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’ If you want to see this show and you should, get tickets now because the first weekend was sold out before the opening. Ask about cabaret seating (the first rows of pews) with tables and service by the cast.
Credits: The Kit Kat Girls include Sara Rae Womack (Rosie), Angela Bubash (Lulu), Eileen Engel (Frenchie), Jessica Tilghman (Texas), Kimberly Still (Fritzie) and Deanna Mazdra (Helga).
Kit Kat Boys: Mike Hodges (Bobby), Michael Baird (Victor), Zach Wachter (Hans), Brendan Ochs (Herman).
The Band: Steve Wozniak (accordion), Adam Rugo (banjo, guitar), Kevin Baudrexl (bass), Chris Petersen (keyboard), Bob McMahon (Percussion), Harrison Rich (Reed I), Andrew ‘AJ’ Lane (trumpet), Gabe Mueller (trombone), Steve Frisbee (violin).
‘Cabaret’ is based on the play ‘I Am a Camera’ by John Van Druten and ‘The Berlin Stories’ by Christopher Isherwood with book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.