Saturday, April 25, 2009

Carte Blanche's CABARET

By Russ Bickerstaff
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As I understand it, the appeal of dollhouses lies in seeing the staggering amount of realistic detail being staged in miniature. Seeing the artifacts of ordinary-sized life presented on a scale small enough to fit in one’s hand is oddly reassuring. I suspect that there’s some of that appeal in theatre. There’s an undeniable appeal of seeing distillations of larger than life reality complete with all of its passions, pains and complications crammed into a space that is singular enough to be seen by an audience. Everything plays out between dinner and drinks and it all sort of resolves in the end . . . even if only in the cast’s final bows. This is particularly apparent in smaller studio productions. Rarely have I seen a better example of this than Carte Blanche Studios’ current production of Cabaret. 

 

The Set and the Orchestra--

On a stage with a size comparable to that of my living room, Carte Blanche’s Jimmy Dragolovich has managed to fit a full-sized 22 person musical cast AND a 9-piece orchestra while still managing to make it look fairly spacious up there. Admittedly, the only time the entire cast is visible is during the curtain call, but still . . . the whole thing runs with such alarming efficiency that its easy to forget that Carte Blanche isn’t an older, more established theatre company. In exactly 2.5 hours, we see one last party for those about to descend into the hell of oppressive fascism.

In Masteroff/Ebb and Kander’s acclaimed musical tragedy, it is the early ‘30’s and the Nazi regime is about to take over Germany. It’s the final days of openly seedy entertainment in the wildly permissive  Kit Kat Klub. The orchestra sits atop a platform behind a scrim . . . stairs leading down from it flank a stage with a faux brick wall—there’s a metal door in the center of the wall and a pair of hidden doors on either side of it. The band has just enough musical imperfection to add character to the performance without making it sound uncomfortably disharmonious. For brief moments, it felt as though there was even one more note out of place, the whole thing would’ve fallen apart. The slight musical discord amongst the 9-piece orchestra might be upsetting to people looking for perfection, but I vastly prefer this kind of musical back-up to the over-synthesized purity of a touring Broadway show or even the technical brilliance of the Skylight Opera’s orchestra. The musical imperfection gives the whole production a very earthbound feeling that compliments the intimacy of things in a space as small as Carte Blanche’s 80-seat theatre. 

 

The Emcee, the Choreography and the Costuming--

Once things get going, we are introduced to the emcee—played here by Michael F. Traynor. Traynor is wearing white face paint—gothic—looking make-up like all the dancers. Traynor has a dramatic enough face that one could almost imagine it wiping off with the rest of the make-up. He’s got a passably good voice for musical theatre and an ample amount of charm as the audience’s introduction to the milieu of the musical . . . but Traynor’s real talent here is carrying the mood of individual bits almost exclusively with facial expressions. This sort of thing would be lost in a bigger, less intimate production where individual faces aren't as prominent. Traynor’s silent glances into the audience work particularly well to punctuate somber moments . . . such as the moment right before intermission: The last notes of Tomorrow Belongs to Me have hit and the Nazi flags have unfurled. The archival voice of a particularly vicious oration by Hitler  plays through the sound system. And Traynor shrugs apologetically at the audience, slowly walking stage left in disgust as the lights fade. Later on, the monkey mask is pulled off a dancer at the end of If You Could See Her and the look on his face brings across a profound amount of emotion without feeling forced at all.

And then there are the dancers. Having a relatively full chorus of women dancing in a space this small has got to be a challenge for any choreographer. Jackie Moscickie, Mandy Marcuccilli-Strop and Samantha Paige (who also plays female lead) did an impressive job with the space being as small as it is . . .and the actresses do a brilliant job of making the small size of the stage feel spacious. Then there are the costumes . . . there appears to have been a relatively enormous costuming budget for this show. If I’m not mistaken, all of the dancers have distinctly different costumes for each dance number and each one of them is distinct for each individual character . . . there are no less than three costume designers listed in the program: Kate Vannoy, Amanda Johnson and Mandy Marcuccilli-Strop. Where the costuming needs to look natural and authentic, it does. Where the costuming needs to seem fantastic and stagy, it does—and does so quite tastefully. Between costuming and choreography, this production pulls off  genuine rarity—it’s actually sexy. All too often, when theatre on any level (professional or otherwise) goes for sexy, it ends up feeling awkward and uncomfortable. It’s profoundly difficult to stage that sort of thing. Here everything comes together to accomplish tasteful sensuality—the music, the costuming, the choreography and, of course, the dancers themselves, who have among them some pretty talented actresses including Katrina Greguska (Frenchie) and Liz Whitford (Fritzi) who have both been seen elsewhere recently.


The Main Cast—

Before long, we are introduced to the central plot—an aspiring American novelist (Clifford Bradshaw played by Clayton Hamburg) is traveling to Germany to try to get inspiration when he runs across an affable gentleman named Ernst Ludwig (Mike Keiley,) who recommends lodgings with a woman named Frau Schneider (Teresa Drews) and invites him to a show at the Kit Kat Klub. Both Schneider and Bradshaw find themselves in tenuous romantic relationships. Schneider is being courted by a grocer, (Herr Schultz, played by Joe Guillory.) Bradshaw finds himself being seduced by British Kit Kat Klub chanteuse Sally Bowles (Samantha Paige.) Hamburg has appeared in a few other things recently, but here we see him in the male lead—which seems to be a very natural position for him. His notably charismatic stage presence lends an otherwise slightly flat, altruistic male romantic lead some weight. Keiley renders Ernst with such charm that the revelations about his personality actually come as a bit of a shock even if you know they’re coming . . . quite an accomplishment. His performance even lends a bit of insight into how the Third Reich might’ve gained some influence, which is a bit unexpected for a production of a popular musical. Drews has an impressive voice, making her solos some of the more melodic in the program . . . but, of course, Sally Bowles gets some of the more recognizable songs in the show and Paige does a brilliant job with them. The complexity of emotion in her performance of the title song delivers a very visceral realization of the complexity of the musical’s themes . . . and serves as a profound counterpoint to the characters endearingly carefree, flippant personality. There are those in the cast whose accents aren’t all that well-realized, but it’s only a slight distraction from an otherwise very tightly packed, well-directed piece of musical theatre. Honestly, one isn’t likely to see another local musical that’s both this intimate and this well produced again for probably another 4 or 5 months. It’s well worth the $20 ticket price.

 

The Musical—

I sometimes find myself joking that I probably see more musicals than any other person who hates them. Actually, hate is kind of a strong word—but for the most part, I can’t sympathize with the huge numbers of theatergoers who love them enough to pump the vast sums of money into them that make Broadway what it is . . . every now and then, I’ll see one that I love. This is one of them. The American musical genre is so heavily overburdened with musical comedies that musical tragedy ends up feeling so much more interesting.

Fascism has taken over and individual voices have become muted. The lights fade out at the end of the show. All heads bow. Then the curtain call. It’s electrifying . . . half a day later, I’ve written some 1400 words about the production and I realize I have other things to work on . . .

 

Carte Blanche’s Cabaret  runs through May 10th at Carte Blanche Studios on 1024 South 5th Street.

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