“The branch of the Linden is leafy and green, the Rhine gives its gold to the sea, but somewhere a glory awaits unseen—Tomorrow Belongs To Me!”
At first hearing, these words—the lyrics to an ostensibly lush and lovely anthem of hope and optimism, seem to paint melodious word-pictures of better days ahead; listen closer though, and every bit as eloquently you’ll hear that they seductively sum up a philosophy of malevolence that cuts to the core of the groundbreaking musical “Cabaret”. Now, as the third show of their 2017-2018 season (and the 40th anniversary of the celebrated theatre itself) “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” in La Mirada California, in association with McCoy-Rigby Entertainment present that legendary Master Work by the Tony Award Winning songwriting team of Kander and Ebb! Featuring a book by Joe Masteroff (based on the play “I Am A Camera” by John Van Druten and “The Berlin Stories” by Christopher Isherwood,) the music is by John Kander, with lyrics by Fred Ebb. Likewise, this new production is directed by Larry Carpenter with choreography by Dana Solimando. Beckoning audiences to “come blow the horn, come hear the band”–as they raise the roof with some of the most dynamic songs in musical theatre history, such as “Willkommen”, “Maybe This Time”, “Money Makes The World Go Around”, “Mein Herr”, “Don’t Tell Mama”, “Married/Heiraten”, “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” and the titular ode, “Cabaret”, for Southern California theater lovers, this is an irresistible invitation well-worth responding to in the resoundingly positive!
The time is New Year’s Eve 1931—a period (as Producer Tom McCoy observed on opening night) when everyone knew ‘a storm was coming!’ Played against this insidiously encroaching rise of the Nazi Party, the seedy glamour of Berlin’s infamous “Kit Kat Club” is lorded over by its bawdy (and vaguely sinister) “Emcee”, providing an unsettling but fitting backdrop to this at times tawdry tale of the hard-living would-be chanteuse and British expatriate, “Sally Bowles” and “Cliff Bradshaw”—the hapless aspiring American Writer who tries to love her even in the face of his coming to terms (or not) with his own sexual ambiguities. The compelling subplot—involving the pair’s Spinster landlady, “Fraulein Schneider” and another of her borders, a Jewish bachelor named “Herr Schultz” (two characters largely omitted or marginalized in the movie) as they too, dare to try to find romance with one another, puts a human face on the German people in these volatile days. Together, they all discover themselves to be ensnared by the decadent nightlife of Germany in the early 1930’s. Far richer, vaster and more nuanced than the 1972 Academy Award-winning film, this 1998 revival script utilized for this production explores more facets of its characters and the explosive times in which they live, granting spectators a more thought-provoking (and much more satisfying) theatrical experience. Carpenter’s direction frequently takes advantage of these added elements—even re-imagining several numbers in a whole new light.
Yet it’s not just that the songs performed within the context of the nightclub serve to comment on the larger action outside of it (for anyone even remotely familiar with the show this is already a given.) It’s how Carpenter and company engineer the way they comment on it that makes this production truly unforgettable—at times even haunting. These ‘re-envisioning’s” include “Money Makes The World Go ‘Round” and “I Don’t Care Much”—a new song cut from the Broadway original but restored here for the Emcee in the second act. Both of which are inventively staged to represent the inner-thoughts and longings of our Heroine, Sally. In the same way, the iconic “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” has been pared down and simplified to now see the Emcee backstage entertaining all of the other “Kit Kat Kids” to a phonograph of the song as he manipulates a small ventriloquist’s dummy whom he gradually transmogrifies into a comical visage of “Der Furher”; later at the conclusion of the first act, the song is more fully performed by the entire ensemble as they give over with some stunning group harmony even as the upstage backdrop opens to unveil an enormous Nazi flag—complete with looming swastika! (Despite the vocal work being absolutely awe-inspiring, the visual effect is bone-chilling nonetheless.) Equally disquieting (but far less obvious) is the way Carpenter incorporates an assortment of shady, trench-coat and fedora clad figures drifting in and out of the background as part of the portentous scene between Schneider and Schultz in his fruit-shop just before their peace is literally shattered by a brick through the shop window. Whether signifying good or malevolence, it’s exactly these unique changes, touches, and gag-lines here and there that keep this particular production so distinctive and fresh. Moreover, Solomando’s choreography also delightfully injects dabs and dashes of dance and movement into the most unexpected places like having a coterie of palm-frond waving ‘hula girls’ help enliven the affable “Pineapple Song (a.k.a. It Couldn’t Please Me More)”. Prior to this, her staging of “Wilkommen” practically defines what a magnificent—and emphatically rousing–opening is, and she does it even bigger when kicking-off Act Two with a lively kick-line of the Cabaret Girls led by the Emcee in even more ‘drag” than usual (if that’s possible.) Although they begin with a plethora of high-stepping and fancy-strutting maneuvers worthy of any self-respecting Burlesque house, gradually their moves slow becoming more stilted, deliberate, and Martial until they’re actually goose-stepping accentuated with ‘Sieg-Heil’ salutary arm gestures. (Again, it’s another instance that takes you by surprise in the most soul-jolting way.)
Leading the cast and stewarding all the gaudy goings-on is Jeff Skowron who is nothing short of remarkable as “The Emcee”. Making his first appearance in a flowing cape and top hat, these are rapidly discarded to display glaring glam eye-make-up and a black leather dress—an over-the-top drag-show homage to “Marlena Dietrich” or a Twilight Zone-esque ‘Clown Prince’ who ushers us through this garish pan-sexual carnival floor-show of floozies, flesh-peddlers and fast-approaching fascism. “Do you feel good? I bet you do!” he greets us once the house-lights dim. Taking charge right from the get-go with the classic “Willkommen”, he introduces the libidinous “Kit Kat” Girls–and Boys! While he pretty much ‘glows’ every minute he’s in front of the footlights, in Act Two he principally triumphs—first with the sporty song-and-dance routine of “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” opposite Dustin Ceithamer in a Gorilla Costume (with a pink Tutu no less!) Here, both instill their on-stage antics with a kind of manic and nutty sense of fun which makes the hateful closing ‘punch-line’ all the more biting. It’s not too long until Skowron skulks on again to act as the voice of “Sally’s” inner-conflict with “I Don’t Care Much”, as she is faced with the dreadful choice of leaving Berlin (and the safety of what’s familiar) to face an uncertain future with Cliff, or staying behind even if it means doing something tragic. Given its innovative staging, this relatively recent addition to the show’s canon gains greater relevancy and is far more significant and resonant than in sundry different versions of late.
Meanwhile, offering us something akin to ‘Julie Andrews’ were she playing someone like ‘Xaviera Hollander’, Zarah Mahler really is incredible as the ‘thrillingly scandalous’ ‘Toast of Mayfair’, “Sally Bowles”; A bad girl? Definitely, but one who also possesses an inherent sweetness along with the grittiness. This keeps us stalwartly on her side no matter what. Mahler also has a gold-medal voice which she puts to excellent use starting with her handling of “Don’t Tell Mama” bringing to it an exuberance and toe-tapping vibrancy and energy. This also acquaints us with just how successfully she can invigorate an already amazing song, which she will continue to do throughout her on-stage proceedings. Shortly after, she returns for “Mein Herr”–which refreshingly doesn’t try to emulate, but rather builds upon the movie’s familiar sequence wherein it was initially debuted. Functioning as “Sally’s” official ‘farewell’ (at least for the time being) to the Kit Kat Klub, this new take breathes invigorating new life into it, making what we see and hear…well, even more titillating! As the verses build to a thunderous conclusion, she disburses some phenomenal ‘money notes”, easily skyrocketing this on to become an Act One crowd-pleaser. Mahler also handily demonstrates her knack for impressing with a softer, more subtle ballad, with “Maybe This Time” elevating this too into bona-fide show-stopper status. Although her melodic exploits in Act Two are fewer than those featured in the first half, her powerful presence is felt all the same, culminating with the dazzling title number whither she articulates the show’s now emblematic exultation: “Life is a Cabaret old chum—and I LOVE a Cabaret!” Only there’s far more to her declaration than that; in fact she instills each word and passage with a far deeper meaning–just like she does with her pacing and volume–as if to convey the louder and more passionate our “Sally” belts out these words, the more she may even get herself to believe them. In view of this, she transforms the song into a colossally compelling intermezzo that very much lives up to the wait!
As the (momentary) object of Sally’s affection, Christian Pedersen himself makes an indelible mark as the star-crossed writer wannabe, “Cliff Bradshaw”. Painting him as a genial everyman, he gives us a wholesome boy-scout next door, who, if he has any questions regarding his sexual preference, in this envisioning, they’re frankly, just incidental. Either way, this lends his characterization exceptional relatability—which is an utter and unqualified ‘plus’, as most of the action in the story unfolds–or is reflected by, his individual standpoint. While Pedersen’s singing is limited to just a line or a verse now and then, (as in his duet with “Sally” appropriately titled “Perfectly Marvelous”) his impact and importance is felt all the way through, and tasked with this crucial duty he never disappoints. Perhaps more notable as regards “Cliff’s” influence is how, foregoing any overtly shocking conclusion as has been seen in other recent productions, the closing moments of this production recall more the original 1966 Broadway version—returning the action back to our hero as he sits desolately on a train leaving Berlin and all those he knew there behind once and for all (in any case, it remains profoundly affecting all the same.) Outstanding is also a word that immediately comes to mind when describing Kelly Lester as the middle-aged boarding-house proprietor, “Fraulein Schneider”. Gifted with a lavish voice and song-styling capability, her rendition of “So What?” affords us with a terrific intro to this lady and her blithe philosophy of life: “You say 50 marks, I say 100 marks; a difference of 50 marks—why should that stand in our way?” she breezes to Cliff when he comes to see about renting a room; “As long as there are rooms to let, the 50 that I get is 50 more than I had yesterday, Yah?” Subsequently she also conjures up some on-stage magic with her part in “Married”—bestowing it with a huge dose of sincerity, substance and warmth. Sung opposite Jack Laufer as her tenant turned shy admirer upon his asking her to at last marry him, this first-class duet swells into a larger production as the pair commence in a simple waltz, during which the lights change and they’re joined by other dancing couples as a Teutonic Chanteuse ascends the rear bandstand to impart the lyrics in German (as is heard in the film.) This adds an appealing touch of pleasantness and even poignancy to their developing relationship. Post intermission, Lester also does a superlative—if heart wrenching—job delivering the decidedly darker side of her so-called “happy-go-lucky” attitude with “What Would You Do”. Conferring on us a potent, resilient (or better put, ‘resigned’) dramatization of the song and sentiment, this occurs after she witnesses the ruthless destruction the Nazi are capable of after they smash the windows of her fiancé’s fruit-shop, she returns the engagement gift Cliff and Sally had given them—a cut crystal fruit bowl (in a sharp, ‘knowing’ reference to the Nazi’s infamous “Krystal Nacht”, when members of the party shattered the windows of business owners they found ‘ethnically undesirable’.) “I regret…everything,” she ultimately despairs. As her aging paramour “Herr Schultz”, Jack Laufer correspondingly gives a solid and standout depiction of the kindly, mild-mannered fruit-seller who boards at her house. Matching Ms. Lester note for note, and emotion for emotion, he too furnishes some of the most touching—even heartbreaking—portions of the entire show. As a singer, he more than holds his own as well, with his parts in both “Married” and “The Pineapple Song”. Furthermore, both Laufer and Lester are spot-on with their authentic German dialects (as, fundamentally, are the entire cast!) More specifically, both are well matched when it comes to the unvarnished honesty and humanity they relate. We’ve known these people—irrespective of where they come from or the accents they have.
Matt Koenig also proves memorable as “Ernst Ludwig”—at the start a friend to Cliff and Fräulein Schneider until his despotic political leanings are exposed. Indeed, when ‘Herr Ludwig’ removes his overcoat at the big Engagement party for Schultz and Schneider, a large Nazi arm-band is revealed which elicited audible gasps from opening night’s audience! What categorically makes his performance all the more chilling, is how Damn likable he is. When confronted by Cliff, his surprise and dismay are genuine. Koenig never paints him as an overtly ‘evil’ man, just one like many of the horrendously misguided people of the time who fell in lock-step with such an evil regime, to the extent they were willing to do horrendous things. Erica Hanrahan-Ball too, supplies tremendous (and frequently very funny) support as Fräulein Schneider’s border “Fraulein Kost”—a feisty street-walker with, (we swiftly detect,) similar Nazi sympathies. While she excels on all accounts, her two major vocal endeavors come when she assumes the guise of the sultry band singer for the “Heirat” section of “Married”; then soon thereafter, with her majorly provocative song-turned-sordid-social-statement leading into the act break when, upon learning the bride-groom-to-be is Semitic, she defiantly grabs an accordion and leads all those attending her landlady’s get-together in a boisterous chorus of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”.
John Iacovelli’s Scenic Design favors a more minimalist touch with cubistic backdrops and a few varied set pieces with the band situated toward the rear of center stage, but it all benefits the production wonderfully. So too, the original Costume Design is by David Kay Mickelsen, with Wigs and Make-up Anthony Gagliardi. Mickelsen makes his point often subtly as well, through the choice and colors he gives the various player to wear during their individual numbers. Take for example the ‘shared’ pajama pieces he gives to those in “Two Ladies”: Flamboyant Kit Kat ‘Boi’ “Bobby” (played by Brian Steven Shaw) gets the pajama ‘top’ while Kit Kat Girl “Helga “(portrayed by Adrianna Rose Lyons) gets the pajama ‘bottoms’ with the Emcee donning both in the same print. Sure, its subtle symbolism but for keen-eyed viewers it indubitably gets the message across. Then, for Sally’s preliminary chanson, “Don’t Tell Mama”, he incorporates a sense of naughty whimsicality having her and the girls sport black bows in their hair with knee-socks that rise up to ‘scandalous’ black lacy mini-skits (and we do mean mini!) Think of these as like a girls’ school uniform were it designed by Anaïs Ninn. Not to be overlooked either are the bright gold-lame apparel the group wear in the midst of the “Money Makes The World Go ‘Round” fantasy sequence as they entice Sally with the unrelenting promise of worldly wealth and all it can make possible. There’s also the dashing pink vest and bow-tie with matching straw ‘boater’ and black-and-white striped blazer (over leather pants) that adorns the Emcee in the course of his skewed ‘Vaudeville’ styled “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes”. The Lighting Design by Steven Young also superbly compliments both the scenic and costume designs, enhancing their effectiveness via the use of sometimes bold color, while other times by employing marginal light to allow long foreboding shadows to be cast. Sometimes Scenic and Lighting elements intermingle as in the way the backdrops are ‘lined’ with small lightbulbs which are illuminated at key intervals. Just as vital to the entire operation are the considerable contributions made by Musical Director David O. who also oversees the ten-piece “Kit Kat Band”, while acting as pianist to boot. (Especially notable among their numerous accomplishments takes place after intermission when the band re-ignites things with a jaunty, jazzy Entr’acte whereupon all the musicians are seen done up as “Sally Bowles” look-alikes regardless of their gender—capped off with snazzy black page-boy wigs!)
So ‘What good is sitting alone in your room?! Come hear the music play’ (–you’re sure to agree: ‘It couldn’t please you more!’) Having opened on Saturday, January 20th, “Cabaret” is slated to play through Sunday, February 11th, 2018 at “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada California. Showtimes are 7:30 PM on Wednesdays & Thursdays; 8:00 PM on Fridays; 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM on Saturdays; with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. The Saturday 2:00 PM Matinee on February 3rd, with be an Open Captioned performance, with an additional ASL interpreted performance on Saturday, February 10th, at 2:00 PM. Special “Talkbacks” with the cast and creative team will be held after the performances on Wednesday, January 24th and Wednesday, February 7th. Tickets may be obtained on-line via “The La Mirada Theatre’s” website located at: http://www.lamiradatheatre.com , or by calling “The La Mirada Theatre” Box Office at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. (Student, Senior and Group discounts are available, with reduced-price Student “Rush” Tickets also available for the first 15 performances of this engagement.)
Productions Stills By Jason Niedle, Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment; Special Thanks To David Elzer At Demand PR, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Larry Carpenter, Dana Solimando, David O & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s 2018 Production Of “CABARET” For Making This Story Possible.