Wilkommen!

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For an arts-savvy city like Chicago, arguably one of the most important cities for theater in North America, I find it odd that many of the musicals I’ve seen staged in this town in recent years tend to ply the safe and conventionally sound route.  I guess we like our straight plays bold, risky, and gutsy, while, other than a few exceptions (Adding Machine: A Musical comes to my mind), we like our musicals dazzling, uplifting, and sing-along-to bombastic.  So I was really looking forward to seeing The HypocritesCabaret, guest directed by the House Theater’s Matt Hawkins, because this is one Chicago theater group that’s probably not going to take musical theater on any of its usual terms.  I went in with some trepidation, though, for several reasons.  First, this is one of my most favorite musicals of all time, ever since, as a teenager, I was captivated by the Bob Fosse/Liza Minnelli film, which I saw over and over again on VHS.  I’d be devastated if songs were truncated or re-arranged or messed with in the spirit of “re-invention”, something the Hypocrites have been known to do with dramatic material in the past.  Second, there’s already that iconic Sam Mendes “re-invention”, the revival co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, which transferred from the Donmar in London to Broadway and lasted for 6 years and 2,377 performances.  I saw that production several times, once with the acclaimed original cast of Alan Cumming, Mary Louise Wilson and Ron Rifkin and the first replacement Sally Bowles, Jennifer Jason Leigh. No one who’s ever seen that show in New York, or the touring production that came to Chicago several times in the ‘naughts, will ever forget the indelible ambisexual explosiveness and searing political commentary that Mendes drew out of the text.  It’s so unforgettable, I guess, that the Chicago Tribune’s terribly dismissive review of the Hypocrites’ work used it as the guide to point out how this version of Cabaret failed (memo to the Trib’s theater section:  Mendes had one interpretation, not the definitive interpretation).  I’m glad to disagree with the Trib once again:  I think the Hypocrites’ and Hawkins’ Cabaret is terrific, astounding, confidently and boldly amped-up, a play with songs, more Brechtian annotation than Sidetrack “Showtune Sundays”, a musical, finally, that this sophisticated theater city deserves.

Hawkins doesn’t as much re-invent Cabaret as he heightens and deepens the themes of Joe Masteroff’s book, based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories”, and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s unsurpassable score.  The Kit Kat Klub is still sordid and seedy (and impressively evoked by the Storefront Theater’s warehouse loft space and its catwalk) but it is also full of palpable desperation – the performers sing a little too loudly, dance a little too enthusiastically, thrust their crotches out a little too obviously, as if by doing so they can stave off the unavoidable doom that the rapid rise of the Nazis herald.  I think it’s also a brazen directorial choice to stage “Two Ladies”, usually a very bawdy number between the sexually ambiguous Emcee and a Kit Kat Girl and a Kit Kat Boy in drag, as an even raunchier ensemble number, with a variety of polysexual permutations deliriously depicted, as if everyone is having indiscriminate sex like their life depended on it, grasping hedonism that would aptly characterize the waning days of the Weimar Republic.  I also love the fact that the brilliant Alison Siple’s costumes are less S and M dungeon dweller like the Broadway production (which has been copied by many productions since) but more like a twisted updated rendering of 1930s German cinema chorus boys and girls – think Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel or G.W. Pabst’s Three Penny Opera (which is the more appropriate comparison, I think, then Moulin Rouge as the Trib says; hey, with the boys’ tight underwear,  I’d say Aussie Bum catalog as well, since you see what you want to see).

The Nazi presence is still a menacing motif in the second half of the play,  and it is heightened by the violent interruptions committed by Ernst Ludvig (energetically played by Hypocrites ensemble member Robert McLean), a new element in this staging.  With the addition of the Boy (an impressive Kyle Erkonen, both adorable and chilling), the Emcee’s sidekick who plays a pivotal role in the shocking ending that is darker and more cynical than the one in Mendes’ version, Hawkins also emphasizes the horrifying role of an impressionable, possibly intrinsically wicked German youth in propagating Nazi violence, a theme also explored in Michael Haneke’s brilliant The White Ribbon.

Of course while Cabaret has all this socio-political resonance, it is also, primarily, great musical theater, with killer numbers that will test the mettle of even the most seasoned musical theater performer.  I think the best performance in this production is veteran Chicago actress Kate Harris’ Fraulein Schneider, Cliff’s, the Isherwood surrogate, landlady.  She gives a wonderfully shaded performance, lonely and self-aware but not needy, emotionally honest yet pragmatic.  And she absolutely delivers on her eleven o’clock number, the defiant “What Would You Do?”, the survivor’s lament, boldly but also bitterly sung.  It takes a while to warm up to Lindsay Leopold’s Sally, which initially comes off as too polished and too smart to be the delusional, insecure, unfocused no-talent Sally that this play requires.  But she buries deep into the character as the evening progresses, and flawlessly sings Sally’s two signature songs, “Maybe this Time” and especially, “ Cabaret”, which to me, is less a song of defiance (as the Trib review suggests) and more a song of unraveling, of grasping at short straws, an insight that Mendes and the late Natasha Richardson also wove into the original Broadway production.  Jessie Fisher plays the Emcee, a role usually played by male actors who have propelled their performances to great critical acclaim, such as the Oscar-winning Joel Grey in the film version and the Tony-winning Alan Cumming in the Broadway revival.  Ginormous shoes to fill, for sure, but I think Fisher’s take is interesting, and very well-sung.  Slinking around the stage like a bemused younger Tilda Swinton (which she has an uncanny resemblance to), she is less malevolent than Grey and less overtly sexual than Cumming, which makes her Emcee more canny observer and audience accomplice than extravagant, showy ring mistress.  It’s a different interpretation of the role, possibly reflective of the inaction and complicity of the majority of the German population which enabled the Nazis’ power grab, but one I buy.

This isn’t a perfect Cabaret:  I’m not sure what the thinking is behind the two intermissions, for one (except maybe because the lighting design, strongly conceptualized by Heather Gilbert, becomes progressively darker and more expressionistic through the three segments, an effect that can still be achieved if the show remained in two acts instead of three).  Cliff continues to be the least interesting character on stage, and is not buoyed up by the exceptional singing but straight-as-an-arrow acting of Michael Peters.  Jim Heatherly, as Herr Schultz, also sings well, but could use some toning down of the restless, fluttery energy.  But this is a must-see show all around;  Hawkins and the Hypocrites have given the audience a new pair of heavily-tinted, very dark sunglasses to surprisingly come across sides of a musical it thinks it knows so well.

Life is a cabaret, old chum at the DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., until May 23.  Don’t miss it!

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2 Responses to “Wilkommen!”

  1. Tracy Erkonen Says:

    I loved your review. The Tribune only focused on the negative – unfairly and also was way to focused on comparisons of past shows/movie. Thank you for pointing that out – tactfully.

    Objectively, I loved the show. I’ve seen many broadway and off-loop that bored me and the singing was ok. I thought this was great!!!

    I would like to add that I’ve tried to be impartial and objective – which I was, but I am also the mother of the “boy” Kyle Erkonen. Thank you for the compliment. I find it hard to believe that the Trib critic couldn’t think of something nice to say about a child’s debut – that has been raved about by others. It would have been niced to see his name in writing. I’ll reserve my personal thoughts on the subject :)

  2. francis Says:

    Thanks Tracy for commenting on my blog. I thought Kyle did a great job in his theatrical debut. Congrats!

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