Review: Cabaret (Hart House Theatre)

Toronto’s Hart House Theatre presents the iconic Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret through January 28, 2012.

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome; im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret!

Cabaret is a classic musical by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. Set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic of the early 1930s, it takes place in the seedy yet seductive underground Kit Kat Club and is told through the eyes of the club’s Emcee (Michael-David Blostein).

It’s the story of the strange relationship between English cabaret performer, Sally Bowles (Courtney Lamanna) and American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Keenan Viau) and also weaves a secondary love story between a boarding house owner, Fräulein Schneider (Renée Stein) and a Jewish fruit seller, Herr Shultz (Don Berns) all set against the backdrop of the Nazis’ rise to power.

Many of you will be familiar with the iconic 1972 movie version of the show starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Gray or, more recently from the sexy, re-imagined late ‘90s Broadway revival co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall and starring Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson.

It’s hard to look at such a popular and oft-produced work through fresh eyes and infuse it with an original vision, but if anybody is up to the task it’s prolific Toronto musical theatre artist Adam Brazier.

When my friend Kelly learned that Brazier was directing this production she enthusiastically responded, “After seeing his production of Assassins last year, you could tell me he had five people on stage reading a phone book and I’d go see it!”

Indeed, Brazier’s direction doesn’t disappoint. His is a gloriously bawdy, deliberately pan-sexual take on Cabaret with a distinct undercurrent of grit and violence underscoring the proceedings.

Right off the top, Michael-David Blostein captivates with his impishly, seductive and dark Emcee character. Like a Marilyn Manson crossed with Mae West, he’s dark, brazen, naughty and has the comedic timing of the role down pat. My theatre-going companion Tara fell completely in love with him. He’s magnetic and larger-than-life, this Cabaret belongs to him!

Keenan Viau plays Cliff Bradshaw as a detached observer but he may have taken Cliff’s aloofness a bit too far and at times he felt a little stiff to me although he sings beautifully in the few opportunities in the show he’s given to show off his voice.

Sally Bowles is an immensely difficult character for an actress to pull off. She’s the star of the cabaret and has to be radiant and captivating. A theatre producer who mounted a commercial production of Cabaret in Toronto years ago told that me he had so much trouble casting the part of Sally he considered going to New York to find an actress up to the challenge of the role.

Brazier chose to cast age-appropriate actors in the lead roles and Sally Bowles is supposedly only 19 years old. Courtney Lamanna, an emerging Toronto musical theatre artist, takes on the monumental role. She certainly has the singing and acting chops for the part but I feel the character needs to be bigger and have more of a presence to really captivate the audience.

Brazier’s decision to stage Sally’s performance of the famous title song as she expresses desperation and sorrow is interesting given that Cabaret is usually a bold declaration of defiance. I’m not sure if this ironic treatment entirely worked for me.

I really loved the thoughtful production design. The set is framed by a charred and partially broken proscenium suggesting violence and decay, the costumes are appropriately sexy and each chorus member is given a unique costume treatment suggesting a distinct character. These costumes also reference both fetish wear and traditional German dress (think leather lederhosen).

The undercurrent of violence is further referenced in the makeup design; some chorus members have visible black eyes and bruises underneath their stockings and garter belts.

I also loved Amanda Nagy’s evocative choreography. It references the bawdy style and kick lines of the cabarets and plays up the sexual aspects while also adding some harder edges. The salacious clawing choreography for The Money Song beautifully underscores the sarcastic and sinister tone of the number.

The production does address the underlying political atmosphere of the time, indeed Nazis are spoofed. It’s done in a way where we’re never brow-beaten by it though it’s omnipresent. I personally thought a little more focus on the politics would have given the production a bit more weight.

Then again, the Kit Kat Club was an escape; an antidote to the despair of the times and this production of Cabaret succeeds in being that as well. It’s brazen, it’s ribald, it’s wonderfully designed and it’s a great night out. Whether you’re new to the show or already a fan this production is well worth a visit.

Details:

  • Cabaret is playing at the Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until January 28, 2012
  • Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8:00PM and at 2:00PM on Saturday, January 28
  • Tickets $10.00 to $25.00
  • Tickets are available by phone 416.978.8849 or visit UofTtix.ca

Photo credit:

  • The company of Cabaret. Photo credit to Daniel DiMarco

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