Willkommen to Wilbury’s Cabaret

cabaretWilbury Theatre’s recent epic production of Blasted showed us what confrontational and controversial theater in Rhode Island can be like. To move from a tale of dystopian cannibalistic sexual assault and mayhem to a fairly well-known gem in the musical theater canon may seem like an absurd leap, but Cabaret is not light fare and, along with last year’s somewhat heroic stab at Threepenny Opera, some musicals just seem to slot in perfectly with the arc of Wilbury’s overall vision.

Cabaret, as Director Tom Gleadow points out in his notes, has always been edgy with an undercurrent of sexual tension simmering underneath. Various stagings add or drop certain songs, which only bolsters the idea that Kander and Ebb’s magnificent tunes are only in the script to propel the storyline. We are reminded throughout Gleadow’s staging of this ambitious presentation that Cabaret could stand on its own without music, but, to our delight, it doesn’t have to. Gleadow’s direction here favors the actor and the tale of the American author, Cliff, and the provocatively sweet nightclub performer Sally Bowles places more emphasis on the precarious uncertainty of late Weimar Republic Germany than showcasing individual musical numbers.

Even with some truly outstanding vocal performances accompanied by Mike Savignac’s spare, but tight musical direction, we remember the touching tale of intolerance, oppression and fear as opposed to any particular song and dance. Gleadow collaborates successfully with his design staff to create an atmosphere that is functionally austere, but still appealing. Suitable period music greets the audience as they enter the Southside Cultural Center and the bar is staffed by attractive fräuleins who appear ready to hit the stage of the bawdy Kit-Kat Klub on a moment’s notice. The play’s illuminated logo appears upstage, but aside from a few moments here and there, most of the action takes place on the floor of the theater and scattered tables and chairs covered by white sheets promise future action but portend an ending before we’ve begun. Lighting Designer Dan Fisher keeps things simple, but effective, and crossed lines of bare bulbs cover the playing space lending a symmetrically elegant gloom to the proceedings.

The storyline of Cabaret concentrates on the parallel romances of Cliff/Sally and the German/Jewish intrigue of Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, punctuated by choric interludes of lewd social commentary by the Emcee (Jo-an Peralta) and the risqué dancers of the Kit-Kat Klub. While the couples fare well, the interludes, while entertaining, often come across as somewhat hesitant and forced. Peralta is committed and engages the audience completely, but he never quite has us in the palm of his hand. The nightclub numbers fare better when fewer dancers are present and the opening “Willkommen” fares poorly against simpler numbers like “Two Ladies” and the poignant “If You Could See Her,” which represents Peralta’s finest moment of the evening. Once again, it proves the point that Gleadow’s triumph here is in pulling the most of his actors and Peralta has the unenviable task of carrying the show purely through musical means with no opportunity to flex his considerable acting muscles. Maria Day-Hyde, rarely seen onstage these days, is simply phenomenal as Fraulein Schneider, bringing a seasoned, almost offhanded brilliance to her performance. Day is a powerful vocalist, but does not fall prey to showboating and Schneider’s struggle to fight and find love only to fall victim to larger ideological struggles is palpable. Roger Lemelin, as her Jewish paramour, delivers his best performance to date in what can only be described as a cuddly tour de force, especially with his showcase number, “Meeskite.” Joshua Andrews, as Cliff, simply suffers from not being as dynamic as his co-stars and although his performance is engaging enough, he cannot match the pace set by the transcendent Katie Travers as Sally.

Travers has proven her voice time and again, but here she surprises in a part so entirely weighted with expectation and history that it seems impossible not to draw comparisons to previous incarnations of Sally Bowles. Travers makes the part hers, however, and by the time she delivers the penultimate title song, we are putty in her hands. “Cabaret,” the song, is one example (“Maybe This Time” being another) of where Gleadow has extracted the character and the story to their fullest extent and Travers could have succeeded by merely speaking the lyrics. She sings them beautifully, though, and in that one moment we not only feel the conflict and anguish that the tortured Sally endures, but we are caught up in the tender flight of her song. In the hands of a lesser actress, this moment would have been simply another chance to belt a tune in the spotlight, but this Sally lives and breathes, less than perfect, but all the more compelling for that. Brien Lang does highly capable double-duty as the Nazi provocateur, Ludwig Ernst, but also as occasional member of Savignac’s three-piece ensemble.

Rachel Dulude shines as the courtesan, Fraulein Kost, and her few moments onstage are filled with excellent comic timing that never crosses the line into camp. She also stuns at the end of Act One as she invokes the darker side of Germany at that time by somberly introducing the stirring “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and the entire theater is slowly turned into a Nazi rally, complete with eerily authentic banners unfurling from the balcony all around the audience. Gleadow shies away from some of the more extreme staging found in the recent revivals, but it is moments such as these that appear from time to time and bring us back to the darkness of the play lest we get caught tapping our toes for too long. Although the Cliff character has potential for an ambiguous sexuality that can be explored far more today than at the time the play evolved into a musical in 1966, this Cliff is pensive, sullen and progressively outraged at what he sees in the people of Berlin. In this case, the people of Berlin are individuals and neighborhoods, friends and lovers. The Kit-Kat Klub is Cliff’s only refuge from the struggles outside those doors and, by the end, we wonder if the Emcee and his highly entertaining minions aren’t really the manifestation of Cliff’s true nature. Germany may need help, but Cliff certainly can’t provide it. Sally certainly needs help, but he is simply not up to the task.

At what point does the music fail to charm and the only recourse is to walk away from it all as it burns behind you? A dark choice amid an even darker backdrop. Not the usual musical theater fare, but this is Cabaret, old chum. Willkommen. “CABARET” runs through June 7 at The Wilbury Theatre Group, 393 Broad St., Providence. Tickets are $15-$25, with discounts available. For tickets, call 401-400-7100 or visit www.thewilburygroup.org.

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