There are a lot of good things to say about freeFall’s Theatre’s excellent production of Kander/Ebb’s Cabaret, but it’s the intelligent use of some of this area’s best actors that strikes me as most salient. Consider David Mann, for example, who’s stunning as the Emcee of Berlin’s Weimar-era Kit Kat Klub.
Mann is the director of acting studies at Blake High School of the Arts, and though his bio lists performances from New York to California, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him on a local stage. Well, we’ve been missing something. With his shaved head and zoned-out eyes, Mann looks just like a character in a George Grosz drawing: depraved, depressed, jaded and doomed. His Emcee dominates the show, sings with an irony that Brecht would have envied, and manages with a portentous glance to sum up the anguish of a Germany about to enter a 12-year nightmare. This is as near-perfect a portrayal as you can hope to find anywhere, quite as successful as Joel Grey’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1972 film.
And then there’s Jim Sorensen as bisexual Clifford Bradshaw, the young American novelist who has come to Berlin to find something to write about. Sorensen’s Bradshaw is the Emcee’s opposite: good-natured, earnest, and more or less principled, he’s the stand-in for everyone who finds this Berlin shocking and not a little tantalizing. Through his eyes, we encounter all the surprises of the Kit Kat Universe: its easy sex of all varieties, its cynicism about money, its unsuspecting Jews, its embryonic Nazis. As his landlady, Roxanne Fay — another local — is also top-notch. Her Fraulein Schneider is all warmth and indulgence until her Jewish lover proposes marriage — and then, as she explains in her song “What Would You Do?,” her survival instincts claim precedence. Kudos to director Eric Davis for believing that he could craft a first-class production with Mann, Sorensen, and Fay in these major roles. The Bay area, it seems, has got the talent, if you know where to look.
Which brings me to an out-of-towner: Emilee Dupré as Sally Bowles. This is the role Liza Minnelli played in the film, and it’s hard not to look to Dupré for the same desperate, high-octane histrionics. But this talented blonde takes another approach: her Sally is bright and flighty, attractive but not charismatic, independent but capable, for a time at least, of loyalty. Unlike Minnelli’s Sally, she’s a secondary player, pleasant to watch and hear (especially on songs “Mein Herr” and “Cabaret”), but not nearly as essential as the Emcee or Clifford. Dupré’s interpretation makes sense, but a song like “Maybe This Time” loses much of its edge coming from a woman who’s not beset by impossible yearnings. There’s nothing wrong in wishing there were more pathos in this portrayal.
Several of the other performances are unqualified successes, however, especially Larry Alexander’s as Nazi Ernst Ludwig and John Lombardi’s as Jewish Herr Schultz. And Lee Ann Mathews as prostitute Fraulein Kost is very funny as she takes on an ever-growing client list. She has, it seems, a preference for sailors.
Cabaret is not without flaws in its structure. The first act is too long, and the plot builds steam erratically, with intensely meaningful scenes alternating with more trivial moments and nondescript melodies. Clifford’s sexuality is left vague — we never see him with a male lover — and the show’s ending feels inconclusive (this is the script’s fault and not the actors’).
Still, Davis and freeFall grant us a visual feast: there’s a persuasive cabaret stage (designed by Steve K. Mitchell) over which hangs a huge lighted CABARET sign, and the many imaginative costumes, by Mike and Kathy Buck Designs, feature everything from Clifford’s best brown suit to the Kit Kat Girls’ (and Boys’) lingerie. Cheryl Lee’s choreography is comically charming, and Christopher Rutherford’s lighting easily suggests a seedy night spot frequented by many on secret errands.
Davis starts the show in the year 1945, with the Emcee, looking like he just fought the war himself, returning to his old haunt — which then comes alive. By the end of the evening, though, it’s swastikas that proliferate, and we all know that the disaster is just around the corner.
In this version, the Emcee survives. Does anyone else? It’s hard to imagine the Nazis tolerating the Kit Kat Klub or the freedom it signifies. How many of its denizens end up in concentration camps?
It’s an inescapable question. And it’s put boldly by this potent and memorable production.
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