Monday, April 7, 2014

CABARET • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog kicks off the last half of its season with Kander and Ebb's classic, "Cabaret", turning the space at Tower Grove Abbey into Berlin's Kit Kat Klub. This darkly ironic musical about the collision between the fun-loving hedonism of 1930's Berlin and the impending Nazi upheaval has been staged twice in town during the past year, but Justin Been's excellent direction and fresh interpretation, some wonderful performances, and smart use of the intimate space give this production an edge.

After a bit of pre-show activity that has the Kit Kat boys and girls sauntering throughout the audience, the Emcee (Lavonne Byers) struts her way into the first number, "Willkomen", welcoming us to the club, introducing us to the girls and the band, and telling us that here, "life is beautiful."

Cliff Bradshaw (Paul Cereghino), a young American, is traveling to Berlin, hoping to find inspiration for a novel he has yet to begin. On the train he meets Ernst Ludwig (Michael Brightman), an amiable local who recommends a boardinghouse owned by Fräulein Schneider (Jan Niehoff). Cliff can only afford fifty marks for the modest accommodations, and though Schneider would prefer one hundred, she's learned to take what she can get ("So What?"), so she takes the fifty.

Paula Stoff Dean (Sally Bowles).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Back at the club, the Kit Kat's featured artist, Sally Bowles (Paula Stoff Dean), performs "Don't Tell Mama", and takes the chance afterwards to call Cliff on one of the phones that are right on the tables of the place -- convenient for uninhibited introductions. They meet, hit it off, and Sally gets kicked out of the club by her jealous boyfriend Max (Keith Thompson), the owner of the Kit Kat Klub. Cliff and Sally develop a friendship (with benefits) once she moves in, while Fräulein Schneider is being courted by a Jewish fruit vendor named Herr Schultz (Ken Haller). Schneider has her hands full keeping an eye on Fräulein Kost (Deborah Sharn), a resident who requires daily visits from sailors to pay the rent, if you know what I'm sayin', but she makes time to spend with Herr Schultz, and their relationship grows as well.

Jan Niehoff (Fräulein Schneider)
and Ken Haller (Herr Schultz).
Photo credit: John Lamb
In the middle of developments between both couples, the rise of the Nazi party starts to change the landscape outside the walls of the Kit Kat Klub, and is met with varying responses. This all leads to a chilling last scene, after the banner "Arbeit macht frei" ("work makes you free"), is unfurled, and the hints and indications come to chilling clarity, with no "take you out of it" curtain calls. Love…

This musical is frequently staged, and I have no idea about the number of times a woman has been cast as the Emcee, but Byers was a great choice here that pays off. As our sexually ambiguous host for the evening, she sets the tone of this run-down haunt of Berlin's pleasure-seekers with a throaty laugh and a bold performance that plays from lighthearted, to mocking, to apathetic. While Cereghino's Cliff enjoys the excesses of the time, he remains aware of the impending threat, with an understated seriousness. Dean's Sally, willfully oblivious to the fact that the party's over, brings solid vocal performances, and conveys a heartbreaking range of emotions in her rendition of "Cabaret" -- a real standout. Niehoff's Fräulein Schneider and Haller's Herr Schultz display a nice mix, and the initial disharmony between them that they eventually settle into in "It Couldn't Please Me More" was sweet.

Paul Cereghino (Cliff)
and Paula Stoff Dean (Sally Bowles).
Photo credit: Dan Donovan
Brightman's Ernst Ludwig becomes more and more stern as his political affiliations come to light, and Sharn is playfully naughty as boardinghouse resident Fräulein Kost. In addition to Thompson's Max, Sally's surly boyfriend, the ensemble members provide incredibly strong support to the numbers, and the inclusion of Bobby (Michael Hodges) in "Two Ladies", along with Byers and Jessica Tilghman's Texas, was another highlight -- set off by cleverly suggestive silhouettes behind a piece of cloth. Whether it's the pre-show action, or moving set pieces on and off, the ensemble members make every move a sensual one.

Zachary Stefaniak contributes some fantastic choreography that adds interest to every number, and Robert J. Lippert's scenic design is appropriately dingy, with a rusty spiral staircase leading up to a second level balcony that sits below the club's marquee, along with a panel that slides in for the scenes at the boardinghouse. Tyler Duenow lights the set encompassing a wide scope of moods, and Alexandra Scibetta Quigley's costumes maintain the visual themes wonderfully with holey fishnets and black for the club's employees, and an array of outfits that very nicely inform the leads. Musical director Chris Petersen and the band are tight and pull their weight in their small perch above the stage, and though the vocal prowess varies among the cast, the "power numbers" are delivered strongly.

(center) Lavonne Byers (Emcee)
and (clockwise) Michael Baird (Victor),
Kimberly Still (Fritzie), Angela Bubash (LuLu),
Mike Hodges (Bobby), Jessica Tilghman (Texas),
Zach Wachter (Hans), Deanna Mazdra (Helga),
Brendan Ochs (Herman) and Eileen Engel (Frenchie).
Photo credit: Tom Gannam
This musical is perhaps best known from the 1972 film version, but under Been's perfectly paced direction, this production shouldn't be missed. For a little extra $$, you can snag "Signature Seating" that's offered on a first come, first served basis, with seating at one of the Kit Kat's tables. That'd be cool. It's up until the 19th.


Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Justin Been
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through April 19 | tickets: $18 - $35*
*Signature Seating is offered on a “first come - first serve” basis and comes at an additional premium.
Performances Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm

Jessica Tilghman, Lavonne Byers
and Michael Hodges.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Lavonne Byers (Emcee), Paula Stoff Dean (Sally Bowles), Paul Cereghino (Cliff Bradshaw), Jan Niehoff (Fräulein Schneider), Ken Haller (Herr Schultz), Michael Brightman (Ernst Ludwig), Deborah Sharn (Fräulein Kost), Keith Thompson (Max), Eileen Engel (Frenchie), Kimberly Still (Fritzi), Deanna Mazdra (Helga), Angela Bubash (Lulu), Sara Rae Womack (Rosie), Jessica Tilghman (Texas), Michael Hodges (Bobby), Zach Wachter (Hans), Brendan Ochs (Herman) and Michael Baird (Victor).

Scenic design by Robert J. Lippert; costume design by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; choreographer, Zachary Stefaniak; dialect coach, Daniel Blackwell; production stylist, Priscilla Case; property design by Justin Been and Jay V. Hall; stage manager, Justin Been; assistant stage manager, Dan Jones.

Lavonne Byers (Emcee) and the Kit Kat Boys
(l to r: Mike Hodges, Michael Baird, Zach Wachter
and Brendan Ochs).
Photo credit: Dan Donovan
Musical and vocal director/keyboard, Chris Petersen; accordion, Steve Wozniak; banjo and guitar, Adam Rugo; bass, Kevin Baudrexl; percussion, Bob McMahon; reed 1, Harrison Rich; trumpet, Andrew "AJ" Lane, Trombone, Gabe Mueller; violin, Steve Frisbee.

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