Saturday, Sept. 18, 2010

Brilliant Execution, Slightly Flawed

Though flawed, the Rep's CABARET is far better than anything Broadway has pushed through town in the past year.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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From the moment one steps into the Quadracci Theatre, it’s apparent that the show is going to be very, very big. Strings of lights rush out from the stage into the audience. Milwaukee Rep Artistic Intern Ensemble members mill about the place in full costume in full character. A vague haze clings to the air. There’s been a concerted effort to make the entire place feel like Berlin in the 1930’s. New Rep Artistic Director Mark Clemens’ first show makes quite an impression. This is what every over-priced touring Broadway Musical tries to do. It’s what every touring Broadway musical fails so miserably at—giving dazzlingly dynamic performance. As big a space as the Quadracci is, all the elements come together to give the atmosphere the appropriate illusion of intimacy. True, this particular Kit Kat Klub is big, but in a cozy way . . . The Rep’s production of Cabaret balances itself quite well at the beginning of the Rep’s new season. It’s far better than any musical Broadway has brought across the street at the Marcus Center in recent years.

The show opens with the big introductory song—Wilkommen as performed by a well-orchestrated group of performers gracefully performing Michael Pink’s opening choreography. And there in the center of it all is Lee Ernst—one of two people in the entire show who are Rep resident actors. Ernst is playing the Emcee in a distinctly Ernst-like way. Ernst’s Emcee is distinctly heavy on the physical end of the comedy, which can be fun, but the darker end of the character only sparkles for brief moments. There’s a particularly dazzling moment with Ernst before the lights fade after Tomorrow Belongs To Me, but moments like that are few and far between. On the whole, Clements’ production seems to reach for the explosively energetic more often than more subtler, nuanced moods that the musical drama is so well-suited to.

The other Rep Resident Actor making an appearance in the show is Jonathan Gillard Daly. Here he’s playing what I’ve always sort of thought as the Robert Spencer role—an old Jewish gentleman carrying out an endearing relationship with a woman played by Linda Stephens. Daly’s performance in the role lends a kind of strength to the character that adds some interesting depth to the production. Ernst, Daly and a sinewy Angela Iannone tend to throw a regular Rep attendees’ attention to supporting corners of the musical. It’s a strange refraction of attention playing out against a rather large cast that includes a remarkable number of new faces, including those in the two central roles.

Faulkner and Hemingway (that’s Kelley Faulkner and Geoffrey Hemingway) play Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw. Cliff is the American who travels to Germany to find inspiration for a novel only to fall in love with British Kit Kat girl Sally Bowles. The romance is nicely realized between uh . . . Hemingway and Faulkner. Hemingway makes for a suitably chivalrous and charismatic male lead for Faulkner to contrast against. Faulkner plays Bowles with a toned-down sense of the character’s diva-level confidence. This makes her a much more sympathetic character, but it also compromises the drama of her feelings for him—already being sympathetic, her transformation from beginning to end is a lot less spectacular and emotionally affecting than it could have been.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Cabaret runs through October 24th at the Quadracci Powerhouse.A more concise, alternative review of the show appears in this week'sShepherd-Express.

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