Theatre Review: “Cabaret” by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre

Last Sunday afternoon I drove to the Marian College campus on the west side of Indianapolis to see the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of “Cabaret.”   I had never seen this Tony award-winning musical before.

It is so poignant!  Also, both the quality of the performers (all volunteers) and the quality of the design team (all paid professionals) in this production are excellent across the board.  I just stood right up at the end to applaud.

What the Show Is About

In 1931, a penny-poor but confident American novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (Joshua Ramsey) goes to Berlin to have adventures and write about them.  One of the reasons he is attracted to Berlin is because of its tolerant, “anything goes” atmosphere.  He plans to support himself by giving English lessons.

On the train on the way to Berlin, an apparently wholesome adventurer named Ernst Ludwig (Paul Hansen) befriends him.  Ernst gives Cliff the name of an affordable boarding house in Berlin.  Cliff negotiates for a room there, sets up his portable typewriter, and begins to frequent and write about a nearby hot spot called the Kit Kat Klub.  At this nightclub, all kinds of sex are okay, there is a telephone on every table for calling people at other tables to flirt with them, and, as the Emcee (Jeremy Allen Brimm) says, “Everything is beautiful!”  It is a good place to forget your troubles for a while.

Soon the star of the club’s live show, or cabaret, a lovely English rose named Sally Bowles (Betsy A. Norton), moves herself into Cliff’s room after she is fired by the owner of the club.  Cliff tries to resist at first, because how will he be able to concentrate on his writing if someone else is living in his room?  But Sally proves irresistible.

In the meantime, the owner of the boarding house, self-sufficient Fraulein Schneider (Vickie Cornelius Phipps) and the sweetly bumbling neighborhood fruit seller, Herr Schultz (Mark Fishback), are falling in love in their own way.  When Fraulein forbids one of her tenants, the saucy-grouchy Fraulein Kost (Niki Hurrle Warner), to bring any more of her numerous sailor “nephews” to her room, Fraulein Kost fires back that she will tell everyone that Fraulein Schneider has had Herr Schultz to her room.  Herr Schultz gallantly declares that they are engaged to be married!  But after Fraulein Kost leaves in a huff, he proposes for real.  And Fraulein Schneider accepts.

For most of the first act, everything truly is charming and fun, or at least as Cliff says, “It is terrible and tacky and everyone is having such a wonderful time!”  Nobody really gets who Hitler is or why they should be worried about him. 

That begins to change for some of the characters in Act Two.

Artistic Considerations

According to the “Entr-acte Facts” essay by Brent E. Marty in my program, “Cabaret” the musical is based on a play called “I Am a Camera,” by John Van Druten, which was based on a 1939 story called “Goodbye to Berlin,” by Christopher Isherwood.

(I always have to remind myself not to confuse English-American novelist Christopher Isherwood – who died in 1986 – with Charles Isherwood – who is currently a theatre reviewer for the New York Times.)

I hope to read Christopher’s work some day to see if all of the complex characters in this musical originated in his story.  They each resonated with me very strongly in their own ways. 

For example, the chemistry between the middle-aged Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schulz as they fall in love is so tender and believable at first that I found myself saying, “Aww! You cuties! This is what I want, too!” 

But equally believable is Fraulein Schneider’s fear of losing her home and everything else that makes her feel safe if she goes ahead and marries Herr Schulz after she learns how much the Nazis hate him for being Jewish.  Equally believable is her hope that following the rules, if she can figure them out, will protect her.  It is easy enough for Cliff to say that it won’t matter what happens to her and Herr Schulz because they will have each other.  She has always survived best on her own.

And although Cliff comes to understand that he and his roommate (his lover? the delicate ambiguity of their relationship is perfectly portrayed by the two actors) have been “asleep,” I could also relate to Sally’s not wanting to leave a potentially doomed Berlin.  She feels alive there!  “When I left Chelsea…,” she sings, “…I swore I would die like Elsie…the happiest corpse I’d ever seen.”   Also, it is what she knows now.

All of the singing and dancing are as satisfying as the acting.   The dancers are all sexy; the singers all know what they’re doing.

Framing it all and popping in and out with humorous visual and musical commentary is the enigmatic Emcee.  Jeremy Allen Brimm is FASCINATING in this role:  an androgynous shape-shifter that is both “awake” and not.  Or maybe it is more accurate to say that the Emcee is himself completely awake but uninterested in raising anyone else’s consciousness because then he would be out of business.  Yet he can’t help teasing at people’s defenses in oblique ways. 

I overheard someone at intermission say to her companion, “He IS funny, isn’t he!”  I agree, but he is so much more than that.   We are watching Cliff’s story as he writes it, but we are in the Emcee’s audience as well, and we can’t hide anything from him.

The design elements are, as usual at Civic, all gorgeous.  I was especially intrigued and delighted by Ryan Koharchik’s lighting design:  it is glittery-dark in the Kit Kat Klub, soft and drab in the boarding house, and stark, bright white at the end. 

I also want to give a special shout to the all-woman Kit Kat Orchestra.  They are so feisty and fabulous on their little platform!  Dorothy McDonald plays saxophone.  Lisa Halcomb plays the trombone.  Susan DiMicco and Faith Harlan play the piano.  Sephanie Carter and Cheryl Guise play the drums.  (I’m sorry, I don’t know if the two pianists and two drummers take turns within each show or alternate shows.)

Here is the rest of the “Who Did What”:

The book for “Cabaret” is by Joe Masteroff.  Music by John Kander.  Lyrics by Fred Ebb.

The production was directed by Robert J. Sorbera, artistic director for the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre.  It was choreographed by Michael Worcel and music directed by Brent E. Marty.  The set was designed and lit by Ryan Koharchik.  Jean Engstrom designed the costumes.  Michael J. Lasley designed the sound.  Debbie Williams designed the hair and makeup.  Allison Ackmann is the stage manager, assisted by Deena Fogle.

The Kit Kat Klub Girls include Kristine (Shannon Branic), Fritzy (Nathalie Cruz), Frenchie (Vickie Klosky), Rosie (Jordan Lugar), Texas (Lauren Madden), Helga (Jenna McGregor), Lulu (Ashley Saunders), and Heidi (Tiffany Whisner.)

The Ensemble includes Vince Accetturo, April Armstrong, Quinn R. Barney, Andrew Elliott, Rob Manges, John O’Brien, Benjamin Phillippe, Rory D. Shivers, and Mark Whetstone.

The orchestra in the pit is conducted by Gus Sterneman and managed by Al French.  On woodwinds:  Mary Bowman, Shawn Goodman, and Dave Paulson.  On trumpets:  Jeff Anderson and Steve Pfoser.  On trombones: Jim Hicks.  On bass: Al French.  On keyboards:  Kevin Kiser.  On guitar and banjo: Mark Gray.  On drums: Frank Niemiec.  On piano: Scott Kane.

The production crew includes Troy Trinkle as technical director, Vickie Klosky as dance captain, and Janice Hannon as costume assistant. 

Costume volunteers include Jenny Hilcz, Stephanie Kern, Karen Martin, Ren Seidel, Barbara Riordan, Robin Uhrig, and Gretchen VanWinkle.

The deck crew includes Tim Cummings, Chris Feltman, Joanne Johnson, Matt Keller, Larry Northcutt, Kristin Purcell, and Abby Scharbrough.  The light board operator is Aaron Huey.  The spot operators include John Ackman, Jessica Hopkins, Hank Klosky, Kevin Lee, Danna Sheridan, and Mike Wadleton.  The rehearsal accompanist was Scott Kane.

Audience and Appeal Factors

This show is ultimately not “just” about prejudice against Jews but about many, many kinds of blindness and fear.  Unfortunately, it is just as relevant today politically as it was in the 1960s when “Cabaret” was first produced or back in the 1920s and 1930s during the rise of the Nazi party.  However, I think it will always be relevant in a timeless, universal, apolitical way because everyone struggles internally at some point with a desire for safety and their fears related to the “other” or the unknown.  It is human nature.

I also think this piece will always be appealing because even though it is about serious topics, it is also purely entertaining.  Have I mentioned the lively singing and dancing?

I don’t think this show would offend anyone, but the sexual references, historical context, and other content make this definitely a show for adults and teens rather than for families with young children. 

Box Office

“Cabaret” runs Thursdays-Sundays through Saturday, March 26, 2011.  Tickets cost $32 each (just $25 each on Thursdays.)  For reservations and more information, please call the Civic Box Office at 317-923-4597 or visit their website at www.civictheatre.org.

Two Interesting Tidbits and the New Season Announced

When I went to pick up my ticket at the Civic box office last Sunday, someone (I’m sorry I forgot to ask her name!) handed me a nice, thick folder of interesting information related to the show and to the theatre, aka a press kit.  I don’t know if I should thank Margaret Henney, the PR person that emails me Civic news and photos on a regular basis, or Megan McKinney, Civic’s new Development Director.  Her card is tucked in a slot in the folder.  I appreciate whoever took the time to put the folder together for me.  

I read everything in the folder.  I am not going to share all of it with you, but the following two little items jumped out at me:

One of the pieces in the folder was a fundraising campaign brochure that gave a brief summary of Civic’s long history.  It has been around since 1914 but operated in a variety of locations. 

I knew that, but I did not know that “(I)n the 1920s, Civic constructed its own 240-seat theatre known as The Hedback Theatre at the corner of 19th and Alabama Streets, where it operated until the 1970s.”  I have been to several shows by the Epilogue Players and Footlite Musicals at the Hedback Theatre in the past three or four years but I did not know the building had once housed Civic.  Did you?

Another pamphlet in my folder tells about the multitude of classes that Civic offers for all ages.  Again, I knew that a big part of Civic’s mission is education, but I did not know that Civic offers Girl Scout badge workshops.  How fun is that!

Also in my folder was a sheet announcing the 2011-2012 season.  Margaret Henney also emailed it to me in a press release.  (Thank you, Margaret!)  Michael J. Lasley announced the new season before the show last Sunday and everyone went “Ooh!” or “Yay!” or “Huh” depending on how they felt about each title.  I have not seen any of the shows so I am looking forward to all of them, but I am probably most looking forward to “Amadeus” because I loved the movie and “Guys and Dolls” because I loved the songs when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra introduced me to them in 2008 and I would like to see a full production. 

Here the full info:

INDIANAPOLIS (March 16, 2011) – Dubbed “Brand New Stage, Brilliant New Season,” Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s inaugural season at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel promises to feature big stagings, colorful characters and fabulous show tunes.

This September, at the state-of-the-art Tarkington Theater, Civic will make its debut as the facility’s principal resident with its highly anticipated 97th season. The theatre’s 2011-12 season is scheduled to include:

The Drowsy Chaperone (Sept. 9-24), book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. 

The Drowsy Chaperone, an homage to the American Jazz Age musical and its restorative effects, begins when the narrator, a die-hard musical fan, seeks to cure his melancholy by listening to a recording of his favorite 1920s musical, which bursts to life in his living room. This whimsical and captivating romp won five Tony® Awards, including Best Book and Score.  

Amadeus (Oct. 28-Nov. 12), by Peter Shaffer.

Peter Shaffer’s award-winning Amadeus combines fiction and history to explore the dramatic rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, the late eighteenth century court composer for the Emperor of Austria, who escorts the audience through his recollection of the events leading to Mozart’s death. A Tony® Award winner for Best Play, the story is a dramatic and sometimes humorous look at the struggle between mediocrity and genius.

Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka (Dec. 16-Jan. 7), music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, adapted for the stage by Leslie Bricusse and Tim McDonald.

Willy Wonka and his band of singing Oompa Loompas lead Charlie Bucket and his quirky cohorts on a tantalizing tour of the mysterious candy-maker’s fantastical factory. This holiday treat features many memorable songs including “The Candy Man,” “I Want It Now!” and “Pure Imagination.” 

Lend Me A Tenor (Feb. 10-25), by Ken Ludwig.

In Ken Ludwig’s zany comedy, the Cleveland Grand Opera Company has secured the world-famous tenor “Il Stupendo” Tito Morelli, in his greatest role, Otello, for their 1934 gala season-opener. Unfortunately, due to well-intended but misguided meddling, “Il Stupendo” is given an overdose of tranquilizers, rendering him unable to perform. This zany farce is full of mistaken identities, romantic entanglements, and fast-paced hilarity.

Guys and Dolls (Apr. 27-May 12), book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.

In a desperate attempt to garner support for his floating craps game, Nathan Detroit challenges Sky Masterson to lure a local Salvation Army girl, Sarah Brown, to Cuba for an award of one thousand dollars. Sky ends up falling in love with Sarah and tries to reform his risky ways, but must make one last wager to prove his love. Full of hilarious characters, thrilling dance numbers and timeless tunes including “Luck Be a Lady.”

Subscriptions for Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s 2011-12 season at the Center for the Performing Arts are on sale now and can be purchased by calling Civic’s Box Office at 317.923.4597 or visiting CivicTheatre.org.

********** 

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

P.S. – Follow me (@IndyTheatre) and/or the topic #indystage on Twitter.com.  I never tweet during a show (and I beg you not to take your phone out during a show either, for any reason!) but I often tweet first impressions during intermission or immediately after a show.

P.P.S. – I don’t have a photographer’s credit for the photos above, but I am using them with permission from the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre. (Update 3-21-11Zach Rosing took the photos.)

10 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Cabaret” by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre”

  1. “I Am A Camera” was made into a movie with Lawrence Harvey and Julie Harris. Great film.

  2. I’m glad you got a chance to experience this landmark show. It really is an essential piece.

    While writing my thoughts on the show (www.ibj.com/arts in the article lead by Indy Opera), I found out that the 1994 Donmar Warehouse production of the show that sparked the New York revival is available on YouTube. In its entirety. I didn’t realize there had been a London TV broadcast, shot from the stage.

    If you are interested in the show, you really should check out Alan Cumming and Jane Horrocks as the emcee and Sally.

    Unrelated note: One of the oddest theater experiences of my life was seeing a tour of Cabaret with Joel Grey as the emcee. He had a throat problem, but performed anyway–with an off-stage actor singing his part as he lip-synched. To this day, I can say I saw Joel Grey in “Cabaret” but I didn’t heard Joel Grey in “Cabaret.”

    Onward,

    Lou Harry
    IBJ

  3. Thanks, Jim and Lou, for your comments!

    I enjoyed your review, too, Lou.

    After I wrote this post I felt “homesick” for the show and went to YouTube to hear some of the songs again by other people. Before that I hadn’t realized that mischievous Alan Cumming starred in the revival. I love him! That dimple! I stayed up much too late watching clips of his work and interviews.

    However, I did not find the London broadcast of the whole show. I will make time to watch that.

    How funny that you saw Joel Gray in “Cabaret” but did not hear him in it!

    I wish I had time to see Civic’s production again.

  4. Actually the person in the shadows at the top of the Acts is NOT Zach Rosing, but actually Benjamin Phillippe who is credited as an actor. Ben is also involved in media arts but are two seperate people.

  5. Thanks, Lou, for the link! I am working my way through the segments of the London show. Fun and fascinating!

    Thanks, Vince, for the correction. I always appreciate factual corrections, especially when they are given to me respectfully, as you did.

    I don’t have time right now to confirm one way or the other who was the smoking man in the shadows, and I had added that to my update on the spur of the moment based on something I had read on Zach’s Facebook page when it came up on my feed. I realize now that he was probably joking. (Zach, you rascal!) My mistake, my lazy journalism. So anyway, I just deleted that line from the update.

    Whoever played the smoking man was suitably mysterious.

    Thanks very much for reading!

  6. It’s my fault…I was trying to be funny w/ a status message and said I was that guy. I assumed no one would believe me but a few people did. 🙂

  7. It’s my fault…I was trying to be funny in a status message and said I was the guy in the shadows. Didn’t figure anyone would believe me but some did. 🙂

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