September 12, 2021
Answer the siren’s call – come to the Cabaret
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
With proactive confidence, the Des Moines Community Playhouse launches its 2021-2022 season with one of Broadway’s great musicals, Cabaret. This production beckons with a pulsating seductiveness from its first note. “What good is sitting alone in your room?” Cabaret continues to be regularly produced, from high schools to Broadway (opening in 1966, with three subsequent revivals, the most recent in 2014). “Come hear the music play.” With its captivating score, and blend of societally tainted historical foundation to heart-rending tragic themes, Cabaret continues to mesmerize. The Playhouse captures a new version of this show’s magic in their production of this gold-standard musical.
For anyone who bonded with the 1972 film version, come to this Cabaret. The screenplay doesn’t include important elements in the stage version, which explores a richer layering of this evocative story. The musical, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff, anchors its inspiration in I Am a Camera, a 1951 John Van Druten play – which was adapted from writer Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin.
The Playhouse’s Cabaret pulses with the desperately manic, pre-WW II developments in Berlin. The cabaret was escapism: bawdy, hysterical, sexually indulgent. Director David A. VanCleave’s deft touch showcases his ascending talent on the theatre scene. VanCleave layers his Cabaret on a foreboding bare boards canvas, sweeping the stage in bold strokes of dark, somber colors. His production team completes this vision. Jay Michael Jagim’s scenic design becomes a character itself, a hulking presence hovering over the story with the spectral echo of a previous dark time in Germany’s history. Angela Lampe adds flashes of bright, desperate colors in the cabaret performers’ costumes, coupled with her keen-eyed penchant for historical accuracy in the rest of her clothing palate. She is the dean of stage wardrobe in the region. Adam Yankowy weaves in a masterful musical landscape which resonates, further embellishing the overall impact of this perfoamcne. These production values provide a rich foundation for the ensemble. Drop this committed, energized ensemble into this setting, add the ever-inventive and eye-popping choreography of Megan Helmers, and this a multi-faceted musical theatre gem. ‘…start celebrating; right this way, your table’s waiting.’
As American writer Clifford Bradshaw, Calvin Clark wraps his character in purpose-searching naivete. The subtlety of his character complements the flamboyant Sally Bowles, given exceptional vibrancy by the talented Maggie Schmitt. Dynamic, impulsive, flawed, her renditions of a soul-revealing “Maybe This Time” and a superbly nuanced title song were show-stoppers, both delivered with a captivating precision and styling. Giving us an androgenous, enigmatic Emcee is the gifted Deidra Mohr. Mohr’s character arc to its tragic conclusion is spell-binding. Mohr’s finale haunts.
The brutality of Germany’s political shift and the resulting personal consequences is poignantly captured in the budding relationship between boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider and fruit business owner Herr Schultz. Jill S. Ziegler and Craig Peterson weave their marvelous storyline into the bigger context. Their fruit-anchored love song captures hearts with their duet of “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” these tender moments add to the intense and piercing inevitability in the final scene of their relationship.
The rest of the ensemble infuse this show with focus, commitment and an electric charging of energy. As an ensemble, their production numbers are unified sensory gifts. As actors, each shine in their moments.
The few slow cues on powering microphones up and some missed dance moves are easily forgiven, as this is a wonderfully stimulating, immersive theatrical experience. A curious choice was made with a lyric pronunciation, however. In “Willkommen,” the French phrase ‘je suis enchanté’ made the final ‘s’ in ‘suis’ silent, which is counter to how the French would say this phrase when connecting ‘suis’ and ‘enchanté.’ Curious.
The Playhouse’s Cabaret has that delicious blend of the familiar with the innovative, sure to sate the appetite of a first-time patron, as well as longtime fans of this musical – and, all of those in between. This production artfully progresses, stripping away the layered veneer of this German era until we are left with a revealing core truth. It was an invigorating environment, with about 50% capacity, as the wonder of gathering together for a shared live performing arts event savored every note, every dance step, every visual nuance, of a marvelous Cabaret. “And I love a Cabaret.”
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