As home towns go, Kansas City is a great one to have. Just ask John Kander, composer of the multiple Tony and Oscar award-winning musical, Cabaret. On press night, March 25, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre gave the musical a hearty welcome, with the help of the Kander family. The show, performed at the Spencer Theatre, was not a disappointment.
Cabaret, has been lauded over and over again, but the KC Repertory Theatre not only performed the work in its original form, but did it from two sides. In addition to performing on a rotating stage, seating on the back side of the turntable created the opportunity to see the show from the actors and crew’s perspective. The 360 degree viewing experience is just one more way that the KC Rep is following through on its motto of being fearless and adventurous.
Outside of the unique seating perspective, Cabaret delivers pretty much everything that a musical theater lover is looking for. Dancing is tight, voices are beautiful and the staging, as always in the Spencer Theatre, is impressive. Sitting down in front of a lit archway of yellow bulbs, the audience is transported before the first cymbal crash.
The story of Cabaret is fairly well-known, although the stage version and the movie version, starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, do differ slightly. American writer Cliff Bradshaw, played by Claybourne Elder, is traveling around Europe, trying to find a place to start and finish his novel. Befriended by Ernst Ludwig, played by KC resident Charles Fugate, a German native that he meets on the train, he is ushered into life in Berlin, and in particular, life in the underworld of the Kit Kat Klub. It is there that he is introduced to the irresistible British chanteuse and party girl, Sally Bowles, played by Kara Lindsay.
Outside of the Kit Kat Klub, the Third Reich is starting to gain momentum. Cliff’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider is one of the most absorbing characters. Played by Hollis Resnik, the character is one of the only portions of the show that reveals the gravity of the situation developing outside. As her engagement to a Jew, the impeccable Gary Neal Johnson as Herr Schultz, is targeted by the Nazi party, it becomes evident that not all life is beautiful.
The overall performance was spectacular. Costumes were a bit more staid than the 1998 production helmed by Sam Mendes. While there were plenty of allusions to the seedy underworld, this was still a fairly family friendly affair, although probably only with teenagers. The entire cast did a great job of playing to both sides of the stage and the general feeling was that the entire audience was a part of the show.
The only disappointment, however, was the lack of chemistry between the leads. Sally, for being described as an insouciant beauty whose lack of care masks a fear of disappointment, came off as very one-dimensional. Lindsay, although beautiful and musically gifted, didn’t engage the audience the way that I expect Sally Bowles to, and it didn’t seem that she engaged Cliff, either.
References are made and then largely ignored to Cliff’s bisexuality. Unfortunately, I never believed that he was a homosexual. I also never believed he could have slept with Sally. The lack of chemistry was noticeable and detracted from their conflict concerning their future together.
Luckily, the supporting cast more than made up for some lackluster moments. KC native Vanessa Severo harnessed her natural comic timing as the whoring Fraulien Kost to great effect. Brian Sills, as the omnipresent Emcee was riveting. Any time that he sauntered onstage, he had the audience eating out of his hand. His rendition of If You Could See Her, complete with the original lyrics, was in turns comic and sobering. His sexual ambiguity walked a nice line between cheeky and vulgar.
In addition to having a talented cast, the lighting design for the show was perfect. David Weiner’s lighting effects managed to not only illuminate the story, but also eliminate the feeling that you were looking at the audience on the other side of the stage. His well placed flickering bulbs and blaring spotlights made the show for me.
Cabaret is the kind of musical that can either be taken at face value or mined for political meaning. While the program was full of history about German Cabaret in Wiemar Germany, the darker elements seemed to be an undercurrent, not a loudspeaker. Director Eric Rosen was smart when looking at his audience. I doubt that Kansas City Rep patrons would have dug Alan Cummings style rouged nipples, but I could have used a little more edge and depth. As it was, I enjoyed the show and my husband, who had never seen it or heard the music, said it was one of his favorite shows so far.
A well produced musical featuring local actors on one of the areas best stages is always welcome. Or Willkommen. Or whatever.
Get tickets to the show at kcrep.org. Cabaret runs from March 28-April 10, 2011.