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Can CABARET still shock today’s audience? Yes, but not the way you’d think.

THE BASICS:  Cabaret, a touring production of Sam Mendes’s sexy 2014 update of the Broadway musical by Kander & Ebb presented by Shea’s and Albert Nocciolino opened on April 25 and runs through April 30, Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2 & 8, Sunday at both 2 & 7 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main Street (1-800-745-3000).

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  It’s Berlin, 1931, and as the Nazis are rising to power, young American writer Cliff Bradshaw has arrived looking for inspiration for his first novel. He meets a stranger on the train who advises him to forget his troubles at the back-alley Kit Kat Klub, where Cliff becomes infatuated with the seen-it-all done-it-all English cabaret performer Sally Bowles. The secondary romantic story concerns the sunset romance between boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. Overseeing the action from start to finish at the Kit Kat Klub is the Master of Ceremonies. It’s an ominous reminder of the political developments in late Weimar Germany, where political, religious, artistic, and sexual freedoms, not to mention freedom of the press, were ultimately brutally crushed by a leader ostensibly attempting to “Make Germany Great Again” while suffering from psychopathic narcissism coupled with constant “defiance, vengeance, and resentment*.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This production is a more edgy, sexually explicit, and often more sexually flexible show than you might expect from memories of the 1972 movie starring Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the emcee.

Jon Peterson is an able emcee, here more naughty than Joel Grey. In fact this is the rather lascivious direction by Sam Mendes (where in the most recent Broadway productions the emcee was Alan Cummings). Peterson delights us with constant shtick, even engaging the front rows of the audience, and wait until you see what’s tattooed on his butt.

Peterson delights us with constant shtick, even engaging the front rows of the audience, and wait until you see what’s tattooed on his butt.

I was disappointed with both Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally Bowles and Benjamin Eakely as Cliff Bradshaw. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, when I go to a musical I want to fall in love with the leading lady. And the way that works with us guys is that she has to be wonderful, but also slightly vulnerable, so that we imagine that we could step in and rescue her. But this Sally, all glitzy on the outside and pretty much just pissed off on the inside, wasn’t “that girl.” Also, her English accent wasn’t that convincing. We’ve watched Downton Abbey. We know how English people sound. And, it should follow that I want to be the leading man, but Eakely is rather one dimensional and he’s always shouting, it seemed to me.

Veteran actors Mary Gordon Murray and Scott Robertson as the older couple brought a level of gravitas to this performance, but I wish that the production had just dropped the accents altogether. I get it, we’re in Berlin. But in Berlin the real characters would speak German, not English with a German accent. So, why speak English with a German accent here? Throw in a couple of German expressions early in the show and then move on.

Cabaret the Musical cast member Sarah Bishop

The set has two levels. The stage level is so-so, and when we are at Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, the three doors are reminiscent of farce, with various comings and goings, but the set is cheap, and the slamming of doors makes the whole wall quiver. Ah, but the upper level, that was special. Populated by the orchestra, it features an enormous light frame (as in an actor’s dressing room) which might also be a marquee in lights, yet it’s slightly off-kilter, as befits the confusing, swirling “anything goes” zeitgeist of the Weimar Republic. Nice touch.

Speaking of the orchestra, they are on stage all the time, but only five of the sixteen stay in place (keyboards, bass, and drums). And yes, there are keyboards with synthesized sounds, but all the other instruments are “real” instruments (Accordion, Clarinet, Violin, Cello, Banjo, Trumpet, Trombone, French Horn, Euphonium, Alto Sax, and Tenor Sax) and even better, are played by actual dancers who are in constant motion, swirling in and out of the orchestra.

In a conversation with Music Director Rob Cookman, he said it’s a challenge to cast singer/actor/dancers who can play, or musicians who can sing, act, and dance.

In a conversation with Music Director Rob Cookman, he said it’s a challenge to cast singer/actor/dancers who can play, or musicians who can sing, act, and dance. And it’s also wild keeping things straight when 2/3 of your orchestra might jump up and go off dancing at any given moment, and even more so when “swings” (fill-ins) are involved. Fortunately, he said that Dance Captain Lori Eure keeps the personnel in order, allowing him to concentrate on conducting. Which he does very well.

No matter what quibbles I may have had with the production, all was forgiven after the final few minutes. No spoilers here. All I can say is that you have to be there.  Will it impact you? Yes, and it will stay with you as you leave the theater and head home.

*The description of psychopathic narcissism coupled with constant “defiance, vengeance, and resentment” comes from “How Mad Was Hitler” by Stephen A. Diamond, Ph. D., in Psychology Today).

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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