Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Dreuten
Story by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Dallas Theater Center
Directed & Choreographed by Joel Ferrell
Musical Direction by Elaine Davidson
Scenic Design by Bob Lavallee
Costume Design by Clint Ramos
Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu
Sound Design by Ray Nardelli
Associate Choreographer, Kent Zimmerman
MASTER OF CEREMONIES (EMCEE): Wade McCollum
CLIFFORD BRADSHAW: Lee Trull
SALLY BOWLES: Kate Wetherhead
FRAULEIN SCHNEIDER: Julie Johnson
HERR SCHULTZ: David Coffee
ERNST LUDWIG: Chamblee Ferguson
FRAULEIN KOST: Sally Nystuen Vahle
MAX: Teddy Spencer
FRENCHIE: Walter Lee Cunningham, Jr.
HERMAN/GORILLA: Jeremy Dumont
ROSIE: Katharine Gentsch
FRTIZIE: Tiffany Hobbs
HELGA: Elise Lavallee
TEXAS: Traci Lee
HANS: Jason Moody
VICTOR: Alex Ross
LULU: Merrill West
BOBBY: Kent Zimmerman
Reviewed Performance 4/29/2011
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
When the Dallas Theater Center (DTC) announced their 2010-2011 season, one of the productions that they picked was Kander & Ebb's Cabaret. This selection did generate scratching heads and perplexing thoughts within the DFW theater community. After all, Cabaret is a war horse musical that had been produced and mounted all over the metroplex. Many had seen this classic Kander & Ebb hit more than once.
There was also the 1998 Broadway revival directed by Sam Mendes and co-directed by Rob Marshall. The only reason I even saw this Broadway revival was because of Adam Pascal (who at the time was portraying the Emcee). To this day I still consider the Mendes version a masterpiece on how to reinvent a revival. When the national tour of that version came through the Dallas Summer Musicals, starring Lea Thompson, it did not disappoint whatsoever.
Now it was DTC's turn, and what they have accomplished is a production that should earn them the Tony Award for Best Regional Theater Company in the United States.
Bob Lavallee's scenic design is a jigsaw ? a complex creation of a thrust stage that stretches out into the audience. The 6 piece band sits stage right in boxes that are reminiscent of the current revival of Chicago. Within and around the orchestra boxes, Lavallee creates an entrance for the Emcee, an upper level and a set of stairs by the side. Hanging above the stage is a V-shaped catwalk held by cold steel chains. Within this striking design element is a massive, cascading circular curtain. Scenes are played behind the curtain and when someone walks in or out it magically splits open on its own. For various scenes, set pieces are brought in and out, such as angular frame door unit, tables, a bed, etc. Like the Broadway revival, DTC has tables surrounding the circular thrust stage for audience members to sit up close to the action. Lavaelle's design has a dark foreboding look that adds chilling aura to the evening.
The lighting design by Lap Chi Chu is Broadway caliber. One of the best elements is how he allows the lighting to match perfectly with the emotion on stage. When there are soft, intimate moments in the show, the lighting has hues of sensitive colors. But when stark reality kicks in, the lighting actually becomes evil, blinding and harsh. Like shards of broken glass, the lighting pierces across the stage and through the emotions portrayed. Mr. Chu's design clearly shows he goes beyond what is on the page.
Ray Nardelli's sound design works in seamless harmony with the orchestra and cast for the majority of the evening. There are a few bumps along the way, such as mics not coming up at the right moment. In one musical number, some odd feedback popped out during an intimate exchange between the Emcee and Sally Bowles. But those are opening night glitches that are easily fixed.
Nardelli and Chu together, with their design of sound and light, create stage moments of sheer horrifying terror that just sent goose bumps down my spine. During the final scene in Act One, the dramatic intensity that is being explored by the actors is matched with quick, razor like, precise shards of light, juxtaposed with this is a gory booming sound. But what Lavallee, Nardelli, and Chu designed for the finale of the show will stay in your minds long after you leave the theater. I will not reveal what they created for this final moment, but it will haunt you and leave you in utter disbelief. When designers can generate that kind of emotion from an audience, then you know you are witnessing craftsmen at their finest.
The costume designs by Clint Ramos are what you expect for a production of Cabaret. The ensemble dresses in erotic, sensual, and barely-there creations of lingerie, stockings, tight pants, and lots of exposed skin. The Emcee wears a tux jacket cut at mid chest with a dusting of black sequins on the shoulders. He wears a tall top hat that is sprayed with a small sprinkle of black stones. It's a fantastic design for this character. Another eye popping design is the costume Sally Bowles wears for her first number, consisting of tight black satin festooned with a big lavender bow on the shoulder and a small layer of draping on her side, all covered in sparkling stones. On her left stocking there is embellishments of black, ornate patterns that complete this magical costume for her.
Joel Ferrell's direction is magnificent from start to finish. The ability to actually turn this war horse musical into a completely new, powerful piece of musical theater is a feat very few directors can achieve. You get a sense that he and his cast dissected the book with a fine tooth comb. The production feels as though the book takes precedence over the music, which never happens in musicals. This is a stroke of genius on Ferrell's part. Each book scene brings forth stark realism and complex emotions, with layers of rich, defined subtext.
Ferrell's staging and direction have scene after scene of finely detailed work. The subtext is riveting and will punch into your conscience with brutal force. There is some foreshadowing, as when Sally sings "Maybe This Time" or "What Would You Do?" sung by Fraulein Schneider that left a lump in my throat by the end of the night.
Ferrell has various forms of confetti float from the sky onto thE cast in several musical numbers. It rains in different forms (paper, silver Mylar, rose petals, etc.) so when you see what this segues into by the end of the evening it is both shocking and horrifying. But it is foreshadowing and subtext like this that makes musical theater so exhilarating to watch.
Ferrell, along with Associate Choreographer Kent Zimmerman, make each musical number stand out on its own. So many musicals today tend to focus on just the big numbers but forget to give the same equal attention to the duets and solos. Ferrell & Zimmerman fashion every single number with a polished balance of choreography, staging, and most importantly, emotion. You can see that every lyric is broken down to its very core. It is quite clever of Ferrell to have a principal start their solo using the lyrics as dialogue instead of singing them then seamlessly metamorphose into the song.
The choreography for the company numbers are doused with graphic, erotically charged dance that is iniquitous and lascivious and I loved every second of it. It may cause some stuffy, older patrons to reach for their heart medications, but eh-who cares.
Speaking of adult material, there is nudity, various forms of sexuality, and stark raw eroticism that spills out onto the stage. If you are prudish, then Cabaret is not for you. These components are essential to fully show both the unstrained turpitude of the Kit Kat Club and their wild abandonment to society's morals.
Alas there is one major flaw in the production, and that is sight lines. If you are seated on either side of the stage underneath the first level, you will be as frustrated as I was off and on throughout the evening. On my side, part of the band, a hanging speaker and the actual walkway of the first level obstructs any action that occurs upstage or on the right side levels. You can see lighting come up on action happening behind the massive hanging curtain but you can't make it out or barely see what is happening.
Images flash on this billowing curtain all which you cannot see in full form, only from the side. When scenes occur on the level where the band is, you can only see the legs of the actors and nothing else. It doesn't help matters that so much is staged and blocked straight out to center. So almost 99% of what occurs behind the see-through curtain and placed upstage of it are not seen. This obstruction did create frustration for several patrons around me as well. Both I and several audience members in our section kept cranking our necks to try to see what was going on upstage or on the band side. This unfortunately dampened some of the evening for me. It just became irritating having to miss all the action that was placed upstage. When the second act began I noticed that most of the patrons that were on my row were gone. I am almost certain they snuck their way to the center section of the house. I wish I had.
The ensemble is outstanding with a couple of stand outs that deserve special recognition. Walter Lee Cunningham, Jr. gives some of those contestants on RuPaul's drag race a run for their money with his sultry, funny performance as Frenchie. Alex Ross is able to display his splendid tenor vocals with his solo in "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". Merrill West as Lulu is a tall drink of water, possessing stage presence that will leave men weak at the knees. Jeremy Dumont once again displays on stage why he is one of the finest male dancers in this theater community. Even when dressed as a Gorilla in a tutu, Dumont shines.
It is a stroke of brilliance changing the beginning of "Mein Herr." Instead of the usual staging with Sally (Kate Wetherhead) and the Kit Kat girls in chairs, for DTC's version it is Sally and two Kit Kat Boys (Alex Ross and Kent Zimmerman). Thanks to their work, this becomes a decadently staged, erotically charged trio of bodies.
Sally Nysten Vahle (Fraulein Kost) and Chamblee Ferguson (Ernst Ludwig) handle the German accents with pristine, clean results. As political supporters of the Nazi party, their devotion and dedication to the Reich Empire is so strong and believable it actually becomes uncomfortable to watch them. But that's a testament to the talents of these two actors.
What a welcome relief it is to see David Coffee, as Herr Schultz, completely steer away from the stock characterization so many actors portray in this role. Instead of focusing on the laughs, Coffee's portrayal and subtext is that of a man who truly does care and love Fraulein Schneider. While he still earns the wonderful laughs the role possesses, he gives the role honesty, respect, dignity, and compassion. When it comes to the painful, dark elements within his character's arc, Coffee conveys raw pain, loss, and heartbreak that fill the Wyly Theater. Coffee gives his finest performance in his portrayal of this Jewish/German fruit market owner.
As Cliff Bradshaw, Lee Trull delivers a prodigious performance as the sole American who arrives to Berlin to become a writer. Trull desquamates his character's subtext layer after layer. He immerses himself totally in the character's arc. Trull does not shy away whatsoever from the bisexuality either, which gives the role much more complexity. Trull's stage presence illuminates the stage and his performance never dims. It is in the second act where Trull's acting craft ruptures wide open and is mesmerizing to observe.
Kate Wetherhead portrays Sally Bowles, the cocaine sniffing, hard drinking singing chanteuse who has a fondness for green nail polish, fur coats, and carries eggs in her purse to cure her hangovers. Her crisp English accent is pristine. Wetherhead scrutinizes Sally's lines, both in book and lyrics, in a way that I have never seen an actress in that role do before. Her voice and line readings are completely fresh, original, and dynamic. The acting tools she uses created a Sally that stands on its own. Not once do you think of Liza Minnelli's film portrayal of the role. Wetherhead pours her heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into her characterization. We get to see all sides of Sally, both the good and the bad. Because of her splendid acting, I was so caught up in her book scenes that I forgot it was a musical.
Her exquisite soprano voice, combined with that totally focused subtext, actually allows the audience to see into Sally's mind, soul, and heart. She allows the high notes to open up completely with great breath control. In "Maybe This Time" Wetherhead takes each lyric and dissects to its most organic truth. As the song builds you start to believe Sally might actually have found the right man. But when the Emcee takes the hand held mic away in vile force, it snaps Wetherhead back into reality and her big, belting final note becomes a mournful realization of her life and she barely sings the final lyric, voice cracking with pain. Wetherhead is resplendent in Cabaret.
There are two actors that not only steal the show, they give star making performances where mere accolades of praise are just not enough. These two are Wade McCollum as the Emcee and Julie Johnson as Fraulein Schneider.
Ms. Johnson is the heart and soul of this production. Never have I seen the role portrayed with such heart breaking passion. Even when the character sings "So What", a light hearted number which contains comedic lyrics, she allows the comedy in both lyric and book to pour out as truth, and if it's funny, well Frau Schneider is not aware of it. Her stern, rigid fa?ade slowly peels away as she begins to fall in love with Herr Schultz . The audience can literally see the ice frozen cocoon imprisoning her heart melt away. When she speaks of what is in the paper bag Schultz has brought to her, it is not played for laughs. Instead she shows Schneider is deeply touched by this gift. Coffee as Schultz and Johnson as Schneider perform one of the most touching, heartwarming duets of the night with "It Couldn't Please Me More". They also do a divine waltz that completes this loving number that tugs at your heart.
Then, from the end of the first act and into the second act, Johnson delivers a phenomenal, powerful performance that devastates the audience. She shows blistering sorrow and anger with what she must do to survive. Her solo "What Would You Do?" is one of the show-stopping numbers of the entire evening. With her facial expressions, the tears in her eyes, her voice cracking with pain, Johnson burns emotionally into the lyrics and subtext. It is so riveting to watch you cannot help but wipe a tear off your face when she exits the stage. Johnson is extraordinary as Frau Schneider.
As the Emcee, Wade McCollum makes the role his own. Physically, McCollum has a chiseled, muscled body that works to his full advantage. He flexes and thrusts his gym built body at both men and women with devilish relish. Bald, with a goatee and eyes painted with dark eye shadow, he looks sinister and menacing. But then he can miraculously transform into a jovial entertainer with a sweet smile and a twinkle in his eye. But the whole time you still see that underlining demented patient that escaped some mental hospital. This amalgamation of showman and maniacal bad boy with raging hormones McCollum has created here is magnificent.
Both his acting and singing transform throughout the evening. When he has to be a German soldier on a train, he is utterly frightening, dressed in a billowing black Nazi Coat, hat, leather gloves and glasses. And when he speaks, his eerie Bass voice will scare the bejesus out of anyone. Yet when he is the Emcee he is bigger than life, playing with the audience, full of smiles and laughs. It is particularly enjoyable watching McCollum ad-lib and play with the audience when he is at the Kit Kat Club. He takes the job of the Emcee full tilt and forces the audience to ride his zany carnival ride of lascivious humor, whether they want to or not.
McCollum uses his singing voice like a chameleon. At times he sings with bold, Broadway razzmatazz, or slides into lilting falsetto. But then he will growl and segue into a deep baritone, singing the dramatic, darker lyrics of his numbers. There are even times when his singing sounds like one of those 1920's jazz singers with a machine gun vibrato. McCollum's stage presence illuminates so bright its almost hypnotic. He never leaves the stage but leers in the dark observing the action on stage. Even when he is not the focus of a scene, watch him. He stays completely in character and you can literally see the wheels spinning in that insane asylum the Emcee calls his brain. Just when you think he will jump off into the deep end of insanity, he brings the audience back to reality and calm. There are moments when this lunatic fa?ade disappears and McCollum shows the human side of the Emcee. When he sings the number "If You Could See Her', his lyric interpretation goes from laughs to anger and blinding truth on how society dictates who should love who. When he looks into the audience and says with stark truth, "Live and let live.", it speaks volumes. After the song, while the audience is still laughing at the Gorilla, McCollum looks into the audience with powerful resentment. Mr. McCollum delivers a tour de force performance.
The Dallas Theater Center has achieved that very rare feat so many theater companies strive to aspire to. They have raised the bar very high on the art of how to reinvent musical theater with their production of Cabaret.
Kander and Ebb's CABARET
Dallas Theater Center
Plays through May 22, 2011
Performed at Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre
At the AT&T Performing Arts Center, 2400 Flora Street,Dallas 75201
Please note: this production of CABARET contains adult themes, dialogue and
Performances are Tuesday - Thursday at 7:30 pm
Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm; Sunday at 7:30 pm and
Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm
Ticket prices start at $15 and up to $200 for cocktail seating (sub