“We have no troubles here! In here, life is beautiful…the girls are beautiful (–even the orchestra is beautiful!)” Thus, the unctuous “Master Of Ceremonies” of the notorious “Kit Kat Klub” bids us “Wilkommen” at the start of “Cabaret”—Kander and Ebb’s Tony Award-winning musical masterpiece exploring the roots of fascism and how they grew and flourished amid the pre-war decadence of Berlin in the early 1930’s. Based on John Van Druten’s play, “I Am A Camera”, which itself is adapted from noted writer and essayist, Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical works, “The Berlin Stories” and “Sally Bowles’ Adventures in Berlin”, now One More Productions—the resident theater company at the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California, is transporting audiences back to this intriguing era with a brand new, more intimate and interactive staging of this unforgettable musical spectacle, which officially opened on September 30th, 2017.
Boasting an unparalleled score which teams Composer John Kander’s rollicking melodies to Fred Ebb’s pentrating lyrics, these are gracefully integrated into Joe Masteroff’s equally brilliant libretto, which he ‘updated’ in 1987 to re-introduce more ‘sophisticated’ topics than could be broached back in the 1966 original. These concern the hero, “Clifford Bradshaw’s” sexual ambiguity which, although addressed in the original book, were such that producers of the day didn’t think audiences were ready for back in 1951 when “I Am A Camera” first bowed–nor 1966 when “Cabaret” initially made its debut on Broadway. Another such modification can be accredited to greater awareness of gender equality: now, over and above the expected bevy of Kit Kat “girls”, there are a few Kit Kat “bois” to reckon with and rave over as well (–along with one or two on the line who potentially fall into the ‘undecided’ category!) This new ‘bolder’ take on the material soon led to the musical’s recent long-running Broadway engagement produced by the acclaimed “Roundabout Theatre Company”. Happily, this more ‘sophisticated’ version is the same one visitors to “The Gem” are currently being treated to–and, were there ever any doubt, “One More Productions” validates its worthiness to be counted among So Cal’s “Big League” theater companies with this outstanding–and astounding new production! Having dramatically transformed the stage of “The Gem” into the titular institution, eschewing the main auditorium audience members enter through the side-lobby, and are then seated at individual tables that border the playing area–which, within these perimeters serves not only as the actual cabaret, but also a boarding-house, a fruit-shop, a train compartment and anywhere else the story is played out. Before getting underway, patrons are further advised that the company will be making entrances through every available opening (pretty appropriate for this show, when you think about it!)
Directed by the company’s Co-founder Damien Lorton who has sagaciously put his own personal ‘stamp’ on the entire production, the downright force of his vision has made it a theatrical experience unlike anything you’ve seen before (–even if you’ve seen previous productions utilizing either the 1966 or ’98 scripts!) Making use of very few props or ‘set pieces’ (save for maybe a trunk, a few chairs and several small suitcases,) Lorton also dexterously capitalizes on this new ‘reality’ that’s been constructed right at the outset–even disarming us with a guilty sense of ‘naughty’ fun palpable in the iconic opening number, before leading us into more lugubrious territory. Ironically too, the more close-knit the surroundings, the swifter the pace of the show seems to be (the second half has the impression of just flying-by;) yet delightfully, none of it is misused or given short shrift in any way. If anything, being so intimately situated and in such close proximity to the action has its distinct advantages—not least of which being how you can honestly feel the actor’s emotions—raw and real, unvarnished and authentic, biting and blazing! Co-Choreographed by Lorton, Shauna Bradford and Katie Marshall (who also appears as one of the cabaret girls,) indeed, so seamlessly does each component meld, merge and complement one another, it’s often hard to tell where Lorton’s directorial input ends and the terpsichorean contributions begin. Starting with the leather-clad legion of fancy-struttin’ choristers that enliven “Wilkommen”, still another prime example of this trio’s collective artistry can be seen by way of several re-envisioned musical numbers, including “Money Makes The World Go Around”—now a full-on “big” group endeavor, led by the “Emcee” but featuring the entire ensemble cavorting to a hard-driving and relentlessly insistent beat; or “Sally’s” (temporary) “swan-song” to the club, “Mein Herr”–only this time around it’s the guys (once again arrayed in lascivious leather,) who are romping around on chairs—referencing, but not at all replicating–the classic moves anyone even passingly acquainted with the 1972 blockbuster film thought they knew! There’s also the Act-One finale, “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”. Originating as a frolicsome little roundelay, soon the dancers begin goose-stepping with military precision once those assembled unveil their less-than-valiant intentions and the mood turns chilling and ugly. Before the final notes are sounded it’s enough to take your breath away—especially after a Swastika emblazoned Nazi flag is unfurled over the stage where it remains unnervingly through intermission! Interestingly enough though, Lorton and company shrewdly (or perhaps mercifully) keep such inflammatory imagery to an absolute minimum. This, and a single arm-band worn by the character, “Herr Ludwig” (—and then only for this same scene) being the only examples to be glimpsed. This same snide kind of ‘Divertissement’ is also repeated in the darkly comical, “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes”, as the “Emcee” and his “Lady Love” –a Gorilla in a wedding veil and a frilly ivory skirt, do a tidy vaudevillian soft-shoe routine, that evolves into a grand waltz–before the song’s stinging ‘punch-line’ is uttered.
Overseeing all the proceedings is Danny Diaz as the more-than-slightly foreboding “Emcee” of titular establishment. A familiar face to audiences to “The Gem”, usually in more ‘supporting’ roles, here Diaz hands-over a genuinely “break-out/break-through” performance. His is both a substantive flesh-and-blood character involved in all the on-set goings-on, as well as the personification of an idea (or several) in this case both the unadulterated hedonism that pervaded the city right before the rise of an oppressive regime—on top of the same restive spirit that, when all is said and done, made that ascent possible. Strangely enough though, he’s far less salaciously-attired (or not as the case may be,) than in more recent depictions (even when in all-out “drag for the kick-line that launches the second act.) Skulking into the spotlight for the opening however, finds him in faded top-hat and dingy over-coat—a haunting “Ring Master” to the seedy circus we’re about to be treated to. Fittingly then, is how he thrills leading the illustrious “Wilkommen”, as the door is opened to this surreal world, and we foolish mortals are beckoned directly into the belly of this beast. Afterward, Diaz continuously pops in and out —sometimes as a silent witness, others as an active purveyor of them, and usually with a well-conveyed song. Familiar among them are “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes”, “Money Makes The World Go ‘Round” and “Two Ladies”. Bearing in mind that this latter outing has always been designed to comment on our hero “Cliff’s” uneasy bisexual tendencies, the number has been slyly re-imagined to showcase the “Emcee”, one “Lady” (played by Erika Baldwin as “Cabaret Chorine” “Frenchy”) and one primped and painted “Cabaret Boi”, “Bobby” (played by Zack Martinez) each clad in variations on erotic under-garments. Off-beat, maybe—but they each do a remarkable job making this sybaritic little interlude at last make sense. Moreover, this newer narrative also gives our ‘host’ an added “lieder’—the brooding “I Don’t Care Much”, said to be cut from the original in the midst of pre-Broadway tryouts. Done-up in ghoulish “Dr. Frankenfurter-esque” face-paint and flaunting a raven-black feather boa, Diaz exposes another—wholly unexpected–side to his character vis-à-vis it also embodying the German populace’s forlorn resignation to the horrors, hardships and helplessness about to befall them. It’s an A-plus addition to the score and Diaz (like all his numbers) makes the riveting most of it.
Also headlining at this establishment is “One More Productions” Co-Founder Nicole Cassesso as that “wild, unpredictable, girl” “Fraulein Sally Bowles”. A bemused and not-above-being bawdy would-be Chanteuse, this British expatriate is smack-dab in the center of a time and place that makes her an accidental witness to history (whether she realizes it or not!) No stranger to strong Kander and Ebb Heroines, local audiences are sure to recall Cassesso’s just-as-vivacious” turn several seasons back as “Roxie Hart” in another of the duo’s hit project’s “Chicago”. When describing her performance in this instance, words like “Dynamic” and “Complete Knock-out” come readily to mind. So powerful is she, in fact, that she quickly makes you forget about the Oscar-winning turn by Liza Minelli—or those of others like Natasha Richardson, Jane Horrocks, Emma Stone, or any among the plethora of A-list starlets who assayed the role as part of its recent—and lengthy—Broadway run. This “Sally” is definitely Ms. Cassesso’s own triumph—and she begins proving this shortly after the opening with her inaugural dazzler, “Don’t Tell Mama” (in which we’re furnished with some not-so-subtle hints as to the type of free-wheeling lass our “Sally” is!) She confirms this all over again with the bombastic “Mein Herr”. Written for the film but eventually inserted into the stage production, it cleverly serves as Miss Bowles’ harmonic ‘resignation’ from the club in question, once she’s met her new man. Cassesso also exhilaratingly puts her extensive vocal talents to the task of wowing with another cinematic hold-over, “Maybe This Time” (–and yes, it’s also as smooth and sultry as you’d hope!) Every bit as stunning is her interpretation of the title number which is surprisingly emotional—sung through clenched teeth and teary-eyes, as if “Sally” finds it difficult to live with herself now that she’s returned to her old digs (and doing whatever is required to stay there!) It’s anything but a joyful return for the lady–watch close and you may see that underneath it all, this is, in effect her critical moment of decision (and perceptive viewers already know for what.) In many ways, it’s also a sad capitulation of sorts—our Heroine’s ultimate renouncement of any chances for a ‘normal’ life.
Alex Bodrero, likewise returns before “The Gem’s” footlights as “Cliff Bradshaw”—the hapless American writer in search of himself, (who also may be trying to come to terms with some baser urges he finds difficult to even admit having!) What he discovers instead is a city and a country perched on the brink of one of the most horrendous nightmares of the 20th Century—all epitomized by one grimy little ‘watering hole-in-the-wall’ and the various denizens who inhabit it. Bodreo too, is no slouch when it comes to dishing-out a compelling tune, but save for a duet opposite Ms. Cassesso–the lively “Perfectly Marvelous” (wherein they both shine,) his success this time around lies more in his strong acting sensibilities. In this regard he commendably never falters—serving as our emotional anchor, and one of the few voices of reason to everything that’s happening around him (and notably in this case, us as well.) So too, any Puritans out there needn’t be much alarmed by the examination of “Cliff’s” uncertainties over his sexual-preference either; these are, for the most part, kept restrained–but one occasion actually adds pointed, even razor-sharp, resonance: alighting at the titular nightspot on his first evening, before long it’s insinuated that “Cliff’ perchance had a few ‘flings’ with one of the Kit-Kat lads, “Bobby” who, upon their reunion, cajoles him with a flirtatious kiss; later though, once ‘Herr Bradshaw’ has made known his open contempt for the Nazi party, “Bobby”, aided and abetted by fellow club kids “Victor” and “Herman” (Portrayed by Tad Fujioka and Angelo Cruz, respectively) taunt, beat and then finish-up by spitting upon he whom they formerly counted as one of their “own”. It’s a jolting moment that severely gets its point across.
As “Fraulein Schneider” the mistress of the boarding-house Cliff is commended to upon his arrival in the city, Beth Hansen—herself no stranger to “The Gem” stage, nor its audiences, once again delivers the kind of power-house performance we’ve come to expect for such a polished talent. Perhaps more than any other character in the piece, “Fraulein Schneider” represents the ‘dual nature’ of the people of Berlin—which is effectively revealed in her two primary songs. The first, “So What”, suggests a more-or-less happy go-lucky outlook early in Act One, when she and Cliff settle on a more modest rental agreement than she had hoped. In it, she recounts to him other times in her life that she’s managed to keep smiling even when things haven’t gone her way. Toward the conclusion of Act Two, the murkier underside of this “carefree” attitude is voiced via the affecting, “What Would You Do?” Thanks to the sheer perspicacity Hansen infuses her entire performance with–and through this song most overtly, we come to understand that “Schneider’” is, at her core, a deeply conflicted woman—particularly after a brick is thrown through the window of her newly ‘intended’s’ shop. This subsequent ‘almost-dirge’ also excruciatingly speaks to the severe cost such a care-free point of view has in the end, brought down upon them all. (“This is my world!” She sobs as the concluding notes are heard, trying vainly to express the melancholy burden of having to choose between home and happiness; witnessing this you just may be fighting a few sobs yourself!) It’s heartening though, how Hansen realizes the importance of her character’s ‘duality’ to this story, and laudably gives each of these opposing elements full and balanced exposure, making sure the resounding—and often conflicting–emotions seething underneath every musical-note is provided its due as well. In between she also shares two gold-medal duets with Duane Thomas as “Schneider’s” aging paramour, “Herr Schultz. Depicting him as a likeable, mild-mannered fruit-shop owner who also happens to be Jewish, together he and Hansen carry the potent subplot. He’s also in possession of a striking tenor-voice and adroit song-styling ability which is quite auspicious inasmuch as the numbers he’s been allotted. These include the more convivial, “It Couldn’t Please Me More” (a.k.a. “The Pineapple Song”) and then “Married”. In this newer adaptation, “Married” has been refreshingly expanded from the 1966 original to add an amplified gravitas and poignancy to this older couple’s relationship, and in the process, elevates what was once considered a so-called ‘secondary’ number, to full-fledged knock-out status. Here it encompasses both the traditional English verses in conjunction with much of the German translation “Heiraten” (heard on the film’s soundtrack.) Once Hansen and Thomas sing their stanzas, they’re joined by Brianna Garmon who, as boarding-house tenant “Fraulein Kost”, takes over crooning these Germanic passages while our incipient lovebirds dance together in a jovial–if fleeting–waltz. It’s a sweet moment that pleasantly enhances “Schultz” and “Schneider’s” budding liaison —heightening our empathy for them, and is well-played by all.
Fine support is also supplied in spades by Ms. Garmon as “Fraulein Kost”—a breezy, Berlin Street Walker, whose impact and significant to the plot have similarly been increased from previous retellings. Garmon herself has a bright and bounteous voice and is more than proficient in how to impress with it. Besides “Heiraten”, she leads the cast in the first act closer—“Tomorrow Belongs To Me”, a disarmingly poetic chanson that is, in reality, a madly driven, portentous anthem to unchecked Nazi ambition. Not to be overlooked either is Kayden Narey as Smuggler and Nazi Party Money-Launderer, “Ernst Ludwig”. Customarily cast as someone years older, Kayden’s boyish looks and youthful years are an innovation in their own right. In light of today’s headlines implicating more and more students and fledgling members of society as those who seem to be coercing the call for social change—frequently heedless of its long-term implications or outcomes, Kayden’s casting could even be seen as near-genius. It’s certainly resonant enough; but this isn’t the only way he excels (and excel he does!) Conceived as the outright “Villain” of the piece, Narey instead offers us a charming and genial, (albeit seriously misguided) lad, rather than anyone conspicuously calculating, let alone truly evil. While also habitually played as something of a womanizer, he also throws in a few intriguing gestures and line-inflections that keep us guessing as to what “Ludwig’s” personal intentions for “Cliff” might secretly be as well. With such fascinating touches of insight, this performer may be on the younger side, but he’s far from green!
A show (and a concept) like this doesn’t just sail—it soars on its technical foundations, and without a doubt, these are all very strong. It’s no stretch to assert that Set Designer Wally Huntoon has outdone even himself fashioning a shadowy, cavernous Berlin Gin-mill long past its glory-days (if they ever existed,) but still one not above gaudy dime-store attempts at glamour (such as the silver sequin drapes strewn willy-nilly across the large main room,) and at the far end, he even incorporates a functioning bar! Lighting Designer Jon Hyrkas sublimely complements and augments this pervasive mood—making the shadows more looming when necessary, while also astutely employing strident colors to better increase (or themselves comment on) the sentiments and statements articulated through the different musical numbers, such as the libidinous crimsons and scarlets seen in the course of “Wilkommen” (–talk about subtext there!) the dreamy lavender haze that Sally basks in during “Maybe This Time”, or the cool green spied in “Money Makes The World Go Round”. Costume designer Larry Watts also hits a monumental home-run (or several) apropos to the vibrant (at times, eye-popping) garb worn throughout. Why, taking into account all the black-lace, skin-tight leather and vinyl, not to mention the copious silk boudoir attire displayed here, one could easily get the notion that he bought out the clothing section of the “Pleasure Chest” in Hollywood! This said, no level of exposure in any part of the show ever really goes beyond a PG-13 rating (it is all pretty enticing though!) Watts too, uses color to near profundity–whether it be in the Money-Green flapper dresses in that number, the teasingly “virginal” lacey white frock Sally wears in “Don’t Tell Mama”, the tantalizing jet-black outfits sported by both the “Kit Kat” guys and gals, or the brazen red gowns and lingerie favored by “Fraulein Kost”–even the not-so-subtle “brown shirts” and jackets donned by both “Herr Ludwig” and “Cliff” (–but mainly when he’s running Ludwig’s ‘political errands’—totally ignorant as to what they’re for.)
Word has it that the folks at “One More Productions” bided their time to finally be able to specifically present this more immersive revision of a bona fide ground-breaker from Broadway’s Golden Age—and it’s undeniably been worth the wait! So ‘come hear the band, come blow that horn–Start celebrating! (Right this way, your table’s waiting’) at the “The Gem Theatre” located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove California. Having officially opened on Saturday, September 30th, 2017 “Cabaret” is slated to play through October 29th, 2017. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM (There will also be an additional Saturday matinée at 2:00 PM on October 14th, 2017.) Tickets and reservations for this engagements may be obtained on-line by logging onto: http://www.onemoreproductions.com , or phone by calling: 714-741-9550 X 221.
Production Stills By Lisa Scarsi, Courtesy Of Lisa Scarsi Photography (firstname.lastname@example.org ) Shoko Araki And “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Shoko Araki, Lisa Scarsi, Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, And To The Cast & Crew Of One More Productions’ 2017 Presentation of “Cabaret”” For Making This Story Possible.