Sunday 15 April 2018

Cabaret reminds us that was then this is now. . .
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Entr'acte. The space and time between acts. The time between the end of the Roaring 20's in America and the crash on Wall Street. In Germany the demise of the Weimar Republic under the weight of WWI reparations. Coupled, not coincidentally, with the rise of Ernst Rohm's Brown Shirt beer hall thugs. In their shadows is Hitler's growing Nazi collective of just-plain-German-folk : they skulk brilliantly in the dim light.

As Charles Dickens said of the French Revolution, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Thus many who remember the 1972 Bob Fosse film Cabaret starring a glittering Liza Minelli tend to remember her personal glitz-&-glamour. We might be guilty of thinking the show's hit song as intended straight, not ironic -- that life is short, so why sit at home and fret, why not just go play? Fact is the racy raucous nite club times at the Kit Kat Klub were more akin to Sodom and Gomorrah than to the burlesque of the Folies Bergere whose images were so richly embroidered in the Montmartre lamplight posters of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Screen-grab off internet.
As Royal City Musical Theatre's Artistic Director Valerie Easton writes pointedly and insightfully : "The late 20's and early 30's were a very liberal time in Berlin, the government of the day having cancelled all censorship. Nothing was taboo. Drug use was rampant, alcohol and sexual conduct was 'anything goes'. No one was paying attention to the political climate and along came racism, greed, hatred, prejudice, the Nazis and radical change."

Thus from the opening number led seductively by the show's polysexual Emcee (Andrew Cownden), "Wilkommen", oppressive thunderclouds loom within striking distance. Even most high-flying Berliners no doubt sensed the decadence and free-spiritedness being indulged in at KKK were shallow and sham and shameful despite appearing to reflect what Europe's post-WWI zeitgeist was "supposed" to look like. 

How it's all put together : Three tales are told simultaneously. How a young American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Tim Howe) has come to Berlin to finish writing a novel. There he meets Sally Bowles (Lauren Bowler) who is a British singer who slept her way onto the Kit Kat Klub stage. Despite being ambiguously gay, Cliff is smitten by her charms. They couple up after KKK's hyper-jealous owner Max kicks her out once he sees them flirt across his dance floor. 

Sally moves in with Cliff at the rooming house owned by lifelong spinster Fraulein Schneider (Cheryl Mullen). A neighbourhood widower, Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schulz (Damon Calderwood), is sweet on her. They plan to marry until Nazi rainmaker Ernst Ludwig (Gavin Leclaire) declares peremptorily how this would be unwise for her in these unsettling times. Soon would come Kristallnacht and crowds of bullies yelling Heraus mit Juden! at folks who used to be their neighbours & friends.

Tying these threads together is the seemingly omniscient Emcee who with his Kit Kat troupe entertain the guests with song and dance numbers. Their acts simultaneously tell the stories of how all these characters are faring outside where the Brown Shirts are assaulting and disappearing people daily. 

Emcee Andrew Cownden encourages his burlesque troupe to Wilkommen! the patrons to the Kit Kat Klub cabaret, inviting them to "leave their troubles outside" and join them inside where life is "real".
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
What RCMT brings to the stage : After the Fosse & Minelli 35mm. wizardry that championed the original Masteroff / Kander / Ebb script, watching a stage version at the high school auditorium at New Westminster Secondary School presents no end of challenges for the theatre company and audiences both. We come to Cabaret with a demanding set of expectations. 

Suffice to say Director Valerie Easton & Co. executed their Pflicht as the Germans would say -- their duty -- with eagerness, aplomb, energy and insight that are trademarks of Easton's RCMT. Particularly ept was the blending of the upstage rooming house scenes into the KKK stage arena, as if many of those scenes were in fact being acted out in front of the Klub's slavering patrons.

How life appeared to many at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin's pre-Hitler daze.

No question the blend of RCMT's "It's showtime, folks!" exuberance with the serious sobersides of a world that was post-Black Friday in the failing Weimar democracy -- both of which were symbols of "Money, Money, Money" after all -- was struck well indeed. 

Production values that hi-lite the action : Curious that Set Designer Omanie Elias is plunk'd into 7th of 12 listings for the design crew. Her transformation of the Massey Theatre proscenium stage is remarkable and rich. The sidebar KKK bistro roundtables and bentwood opera chairs coupled with the upstage rooming house sets behind billowing sheer curtains wove the scenes together effortlessly. Not to mention the semi-circle catwalk around the orchestra pit that allowed the song-&-dance troupe to parade its stuff right smartly.

And how Costume Designer Christopher David Gauthier wound up one spot below her for acknowledgment in the program is another mystery. Outrageous! costumery in this show, particularly for the Emcee role.  

Also delightful turns by the 12-piece orchestral ensemble. This reviewer's ear, however, does require shout-outs to go to Ross Halliday on drums/percussion for his subtlety and finesse -- no wood-chopper he. Also ringing particularly true were Tom Walker's trombone and Shawn Hillman's viola riffs. Subtle silky stuff. Altogether a very well-wrapt sound by one and all.

Acting pin-spots :  When first I saw Fosse's film with M.C. Joel Gray I remember remarking to friends at the time as a 20-something : "No one will ever do as good a job with that role as he does." 

"As good a job" is, quite frankly, the wrong choice of expression. Because what Andrew Cownden does for RCMT with Ms. Elias's clever staging -- and Director Easton's ever-ingenious choreography and blocking -- is (oh! how trite to put it...) worth the price of admission alone. Cownden embraces the saucy character of Emcee same as he embraces the privates of both the women and the men in his stage gang. He wears Emcee's role and persona and costuming like a man who first performed this gig as a nerdy kid 20 years back in Granny's farmyard -- he's just embellished-&-glitzed it professionally over time.

Lauren Bowler as Sally Bowles does a remarkable Brit accent and impersonation. Fine chops indeed. Albeit maybe not quite sleazy enough at times seducing stiff Cliff Bradshaw, her rendition of "Cabaret" at show's end was breathtakingly blue and nuanced and still naively-&-charmingly hopeful.

No review of this show could possibly not mention Cheryl Mullen and Damon Calderwood as the late-life ill-fated lovebirds. Oh how touching their words, their songs, their dances, their fateful engagement party. 

Who gonna like : As a student teacher at NWSS in 1969 under the school's English master Sam Roddan, I used to hate having to attend assemblies in the vast auditorium there. I feel little different 50 years on. What an impersonal and stadium-like room to have to work.

But work it Valerie Easton and her crews of performers and production talent do to marvellous effect. Cabaret is as Easton says so well : "Cabaret is a special show, one of the few thought-provoking musicals. The script is clever and the music raunchy, smart, tender, and most of all unforgettable."

Today's show was sold-out. Wise pursuers of an utterly delightful nite of song, dance, thought, laughter-&-tears will want to punch their ticket early so as to not miss out.

Creators : Book by Joe Mastoff.  Based on the play by "I Am a Camera" John Van Druten.  Selected narrative taken from "The Berlin Stories" by Christopher Isherwood. Music by John Kander.  Lyrics by Fred Ebb.

Produced by : Royal City Musical Theatre. At the Massey Theatre, SW corner, 8th Street & 8th Avenue, New Westminster.  On until April 29, 2018.  Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.521.5050 or on-line at RCMT tickets. Run-time Two hours, 15 minutes plus intermission.

Production team : [from the program list]  Director & Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Musical Director James Bryson.  Artistic Associate Alen Dominguez.  Assistant Choreographer Jacq Smith.  Producer Chelsea Carlson.  Technical Director Alex House.  Set Designer Omanie Elias.  Costume Designer Christopher David Gauthier.  Executive Sound Designer Tim Lang.  Sound Designer Malcolm Ross.  Lighting Designer Rob Sondergaard.  Properties Manager Sharon Zimmerman. Stage Manager Linzi Voth.  Assistant Stage Manager Gerri Torres.  Assistant Stage Manager Zain Khudhur.  Assistant Stage Manager Sophie Jederman. Rehearsal Pianist Patrick Ray. 

Principal performers :  Lauren Bowler (Sally Bowles).  Andrew Cownden (Emcee).  Tim Howe (Clifford Bradshaw). Olesia Shewchuk (Fraulein Kost / Chanteuse).  Cheryl Mullen (Fraulein Schneider). Damon Calderwood (Herr Schultz). Gavin Leclaird (Ernst Ludwig).

Ensemble performers : Callie Anderson.  Britt Bailey.  Daniel Cardoso.  Kurtis D'Aoust.  Isabella Halladay.  Lucia Forward. Jennifer Lynch.  Kyle McCloy.  Jayka Mayne.  Joseph Spitale.  Michael Stusiak.  Rachel Theilade.  Michael Wilkinson.  

Boy Sopranos (Hitler Jugend) : Adrian Asuncion Cuenca.  Oliver Gold.  Andre Kozak.  Owen Scott.

Orchestra :  Andrea Alexandra (Trumpet).  Ross Halliday (Drums / Percussion).  Shawn Hillman (Viola).  Angus Lam (Bass).  Kevin McDonnell (Violin).  Patrick Ray (Keyboard, Violin).  Steve Torok (Trumpet).  Tom Walker (Trombone).  Miranda Wheeler (Clarinet, Saxophone).  Lia Wolfe (Piano).  Kevin Wu (Clarinet, Flute, Saxophone).  Aireleen Zhu (Cello). 

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