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Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010

Extravagant Fun at Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Cabaret’

Theater Review

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The beguiling appeal of pre-World War II decadence and the glamour of hedonistic abandon are indelibly captured in the ever-popular Cabaret. Audiences are inevitably delighted by a charm that so easily sets aside the impending juggernaut that will soon darken the horizon. Yet Cabaret is a fun show and its pleasure quotient is in no way diminished by its historical perspective. Based on stories by the moody Christopher Isherwood, it eschews political diatribes for an insouciant nonchalance and a satiric energy at times a tad overproduced, almost threatening to go over the top. Audiences love it.

The Rep’s season premiere spares no effort to produce one of its most lavish, energizing shows with a terrific onstage band including musical spots often deleted.

With the opening “Willkommen” and the talented Lee Ernst as master of ceremonies, the show explodes into being as the Kit Kat Klub lights up with an invigorating glitz that barely lets up. Cabaret is the largest full-scale musical ever mounted on the Quadracci Powerhouse stage, a first for Artistic Director Mark Clements as well as a choreographic first for classical ballet aficionado Michael Pink, whose dance ensembles send the production into giddy orbit. Sets and costumes change so rapidly that it takes moments to grasp that the figure in black corset is Lee Ernst.

Decadence has never been more fun. Bisexuality is barely fussed over. The Kit Kat is for everyone and the delights of boys approaching boys or girls is just part of the intoxicating hegemony provided by the music. Kelley Faulkner as Sally Bowles may not erase memories of Liza’s gentler musicality, but her rendition of Sally is more firmly grounded within the concept of this show, stressing the harsher realities. Her approach to the vocal demands of the title song resonated with a more genuine irony, bringing the house down. As the innocent American writer Clifford Bradshaw, Geoffrey Hemingway brings a powerful voice to a romance with Sally that will come to naught. Angela Iannone provides a hilarious cameo as Fraulein Kost, requiring regular visiting “sailor friends” to provide income for her rent.

The first swastika appears casually at the engagement party of the old couple, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, beautifully played by Linda Stephens and Jonathan Gillard Daly. She will discover that he is Jewish. They will not marry. Act One closes with the famously chilling choral number “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” giving the show its true gravitas not only as a premonition but an eerie reminder that even myopic blinders—so easily assumed behind the glare of the Kit Kat Klub—cannot completely erase an awareness that something evil this way comes. Many will find the second act a tad too political, but this remarkable production provides a new hallmark for the Rep’s enduring reputation.

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