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Cabaret, by John Kander and Fred Ebb
The Tavern did it again!
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
The 2007 Atlanta Shakespeare Company production of Cabaret begins with Tavern stalwart Jeff McKerley, who appears in black spats and knickers, introducing himself as the Emcee and exhorting us to “leave your troubles outside”. And with the whirlwind transformation of the Tavern’s traditional Elizabethan Playhouse to a 1930’s German nightclub, it’s not a hard request. Set designer Tommy Cox’s clever use of the admittedly limited space (for a musical, at least) makes it nearly unrecognizable as the Shakespeare Tavern stage, with the fringed curtains, bordello-red paint, and flashy lighting. Moreover, there’s eye candy galore: from the sexy, short-haired bassist twanging away on her gum and the strings with abandon, to the shrill, sex kitten voices of the Kit Kat girls… and the tiny, toned rear ends of the Kit Kat boys.

McKerley irreverently ad-libs the introductions while the Kit Kat Club abounds with a rather…um… realistic depiction of a pre-WWII Berlin hotspot. McKerley as choreographer and Heidi Cline as director disdain to pull their punches – this really ain’t your Granny’s Cabaret. They’re not kidding when they tell you to leave the kids at home. The dancing is raw and the costumes revealing. A few audience members will be shocked (honestly, I was, at first), but I hung on through the first dance number, and was well- rewarded for my patience - and reservation of judgment - with some truly superb performances.

I think there are some GREAT ones in this show, begun by McKerley and followed quickly by locally-acclaimed actress Ellen McQueen. McQueen plays Frau Schneider, an old Berliner with rooms to let who charmed both me and the young American author Cliff Bradshaw (Matt Nitchie) with her European brusqueness and her “Old World” sensibility. Schneider’s first musical number, “So What,” is simplistic in its construction, and McQueen’s gravelly rendition has very little of Bel Canto about it. But over the course of the song, I fell in love with Schneider and McQueen both for the warmth and pragmatism displayed. Later in the play, she further endeared herself to me alongside Clark Taylor, who plays her love interest, Herr Schultz. (Tavern fans will remember Taylor for his starring role in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, also directed by Heidi Cline.) A fruit merchant as old (and “old country”) as she is, Schultz brings Frau Schneider a gift rare and unusual in post-WWI Europe: a pineapple. Even as I was watching, I hated to look away from them to write these words! Together, they spoke to the shy, tender, hopeful lover in me, and I found their careful dance around the possibility of their actually getting…gulp!... MARRIED just enchanting.

Also notable are Lala Cochran as Frauline Kost the, ahem, “Sailor’s delight”, and the Tavern’s own Artistic Director Jeff Watkins as Ernst Ludwig, a man working to secretly promote the Nazi party. And what a treat it is for we long-time Tavern fans to welcome Agnes Hardy back to the bard’s stage after too long an absence. Hardy plays the Kit Kat headliner Sally Bowles, who makes her entrance in ruffled socks and a pink gingham dress, begging us not to tell Mama what she does for a living. Surrounded by a giggling gaggle of similarly-dressed Kit Kat girls, Sally offers glimpses of the black lace bra she wears beneath her dress. I felt a bit like a voyeur at a Catholic schoolgirl’s slumber party – after ma and pa had gone to bed. All that was missing was the poster stashed under the bed of Orlando Bloom. :)

With barely a moment’s pause, the remainder of the Kit Kat gang shimmied their way into the audience, chatting up patrons and generally sweeping me and the rest of us along with their energetic cheering and ad-libbing. And I’ll be honest, even though this is an aspect of the Tavern’s unique style with which many are familiar, this play is not like anything else you’ll have seen here. This is a play from another time, and its pace is quite, quite different. If you are a Tavern regular, please take my advice and allow yourself some patience in being witness to this play, which at times may seem “unsettled” by comparison to the farcical timing of shows you’ve seen there (like The Comedy of Errors or Taming of the Shrew.) Cabaret lives in a world all its own, and it’s a world worth inhabiting once you get used to its unique style.

First of all, there is some extraordinary musical talent in this show. Particularly notable are recently-graduated-Apprentice Bryan Lee, Tavern newcomer Marc Schroeder (who plays more musical instruments than G-d), Jeff McKerley (but anybody who’s ever seen him expects that, right?), and just about all of the Kit Kat boys and girls. (And, boy, can these folks dance, too!) But the surprise treat here is Matt Nitchie, who has managed to play such roles at the Tavern as Brutus in Julius Caesar and Tybalt in R&J without ever letting us know what a beautiful voice he has! Sweet and unaffected, his voice is clearly classically trained, and hearing him sing was one of the high points of the evening for me.

It’s funny: the points made in Cabaret are sometimes so obvious that they are almost too subtle, if such a thing can be true. Take the song “Money Makes the World Go ‘Round”, for instance. The play has just started to leave behind the gaiety of the Kit Kat Club to reveal its underlying current of malaise when up pops a night-club number that initially puts one in mind of Madonna’s “Material Girl”. At its start, it confused me: what did this song have to do with the rest of the show? It seemed out of place, until I remembered that the Third Reich might never have made the headway it did were it not for the economic circumstances in 1930’s Germany that made her residents look for a solution… and a couple of scapegoats. It seemed to me to be both subtle and glaringly obvious… I’ll let you decide which.

Remember my observation that Cabaret is a world worth your patience in getting to know? If, like it did for me, it takes you a bit to adjust to the shock value and the unexpected “turn” at the end of Act I, here’s my advice: when the lights come up, go get your apple crisp, take a breather, and then prepare yourself for the second half of the show. Under Heidi Cline’s deft direction, this is where the Tavern ensemble truly shines. The acting amongst McKerley, Hardy, Nitchie, McQueen, Taylor, and the supporting cast is truly superb. These are the moments I personally (being admittedly a bit of a Prim Polly) waited for amidst the fishnet hose and the peek-a-boo skirts. As the reality of the Nazi regime’s reign casts desperate, anxious shadows over the second act, I felt as if the whole world had shifted… and no doubt that was the point.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, but I strongly urge everyone to see this show. This is a bawdy, ribald, dark, devastating play… and it is beautifully performed in the hands of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company.

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