Riverside Dinner Theater CabaretBy Bob Ashby • Mar 28th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Riverside Dinner Theater
Riverside Dinner Theater, Fredericksburg, VA
Through April 29th
2:55, with one intermission
$50-$58/$46-$52 Seniors/$40 Child/$37-$42 Show Only
Reviewed March 24th, 2012
Following a 20-minute prologue by producer Rollin Wehman (including, in roughly equal parts, birthday greetings, notes on the background of the show, plugs for the next season’s shows, and car and hotel commercials), Riverside Dinner Theater in Stafford, Virginia, provides a faithful, competent, and often polished reproduction of the 1998 Broadway revival of the Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret, a show that has always had moments of greatness along with noteworthy flaws. All the many versions of the story ultimately flow from Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and all feature second-rate nightclub singer Sally Bowles as a central character.
A highlight of the Riverside production is the energetic and precise dance work of the ensemble, in numbers like “The Money Song” and the opening “Wilkommen.” With rare exceptions, the singing of principals and ensemble is strong and clear. The pace of the production is steady and not permitted to drag. At times, however, it appeared that much of the cast was playing at being decadent, rather than truly inhabiting the world of Berlin nightlife circa 1930.
Many shows have a problem character, and in Cabaret that character is Cliff Bradshaw, a young American who travels to Berlin to find something interesting to write about. The role is poorly written in all the versions of the musical and forces the actor playing it to make a quick transition from a political and sexual naïf to Sally’s borderline abusive boyfriend. Mason Reich does about as well as can be expected in portraying a character who, while not terribly interesting or sympathetic, must be the camera lens through which the audience views the action.
There is also an underlying problem concerning Cliff’s sexuality. The original “observer” character in the stories leading to Cabaret was Isherwood himself, an openly gay man who visited Berlin because, as he later said, “Berlin meant boys.” For the original 1966 production of Cabaret, the “observer” character became Cliff, a straight American innocent abroad who, unlike Isherwood, could fall in love with Sally and imagine a life with her in Pennsylvania. The 1972 Liza Minelli movie compromised by making Cliff actively bisexual. The 1998 revival briefly mentions his bisexuality in an early scene and then drops it. In the Riverside production, Cliff appears quite uncomfortable in his one encounter with a man with whom he once hooked up, but that doesn’t matter because his bisexuality has no subsequent consequences. Introducing a potentially important fact about a character and then ignoring it makes no dramatic sense.
Nicole Foret Oberleitner gives dynamic performances of Sally’s big songs: “Don’t Tell Momma,” “Maybe This Time,” “Mein Herr,” and, of course, the tile song. In “Cabaret,” she is pushed onto the nightclub stage shortly after having had an abortion, and she is clearly standing on physically and emotionally shaky ground. This approach works better than the more defiant, or even triumphant, interpretation one sees in some renditions of the song. Oberleitner gets Sally’s nervous energy, bravado, capacity for denial, and inclination toward self-destruction, though not perhaps all of the heartbreaking vulnerability that arouses tender, protective feelings in Cliff.
Even more than Sally, the Emcee is the key figure in Cabaret. In “Two Ladies,” “Wilkommen,” and particularly the insidiously anti-Semitic “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,” Tommy McNeal sings vibrantly and moves well. He succeeds in setting the sleazy tone of the Kit Kat Klub, costumed and made up somewhat in the manner of Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. McNeal establishes the creepy, sinister aspect of his character early — perhaps too early. Better that the Emcee’s smiling, ingratiating presence at first seduces the audience into the cabaret’s milieu before the underlying darkness is made evident.
Among the other principals, Ron Sarro, as the kind -, but politically naïve – Herr Schultz, provides a note of real sweetness, especially in his number “Married.” Opposite him as Fraulein Schneider, Carol Hagy sings lyrically with a warm tone, but does not sufficiently catch the note of deep world-weariness in her character. Schiender’s most important number is “What Would You Do?” in Act 2, her response to Cliff’s reproof for her jilting of Herr Shultz because he is a Jew. She begins singing to Cliff and Sally, and makes a tentative move toward the audience. The moment would have been stronger had Hagy been more fully committed to directly engaging the audience in her moral and practical dilemma.
Andrea Kahane, as Fraulein Kost, the local pro-Nazi prostitute, does strong work both in “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and the German parallel to “Married.” Todd Evan Pristas, as the seemingly friendly Ernst Ludwig, effectively portrays the character who most overtly introduces the iron fist of Nazi power into the proceedings.
Most of the 1998 revival’s run was in the reconfigured Studio 54, permitting a show set in a nightclub to be set in a nightclub, with well-exploited possibilities for intimate interaction between cast and audience. This concept does not translate well into Riverside’s traditional proscenium stage and cavernous audience space. The perils of trying to reproduce, rather than reimagine, a musical in a different context are underlined when, in a production having no on-stage all-girl band, but only recorded instrumental music, the Emcee continues to insist that “even the orchestra is beautiful.”
Many of the flaws in the show derive from the script itself and cannot be laid at the feet of the Riverside production team. The script carries a heavy, and historically unfounded, implication that Weimar decadence and sexual freedom somehow facilitated the rise of Nazism. Having the denizens of the Kit Kat Klub pivot on a dime from sexual frolicking to goose-stepping is untrue to the life and spirit of the German cabaret scene of the era, which was the home of opposition to and satire of fascism (think, for instance, of the cabaret career of stalwart anti-Nazi Marlene Dietrich). Having Bobby and Victor, a gay couple who work at the Kit Kat Klub, marching to the Nazi beat in “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a particularly jarring choice in the Riverside production.
The original 1966 version of Cabaret suffered from a dichotomy between the cabaret scenes and the conventional book scenes, involving the failed romances between Cliff and Sally and between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. In an apparent attempt better to integrate the cabaret and book scenes, and perhaps to make the point that all life really is a cabaret, the 1998 version followed by Riverside has the Emcee intervening in the scenes as a sort of unseen impresario, with other cabaret performers looking on. As staged in the Riverside production, this choice seems a hollow victory of concept over character development.
In the transition from the 1966 version to the movie to the 1998 version, some things have been gained, particularly quite good songs like “Maybe This Time” and “Mein Herr.” Other things have been lost. The deletion of the song “Meeskite” loses a sweet moment for Herr Shultz. The impact of the Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” in the original Broadway version of the show and in the movie, rests significantly on its beginning to be sung as a sweet, almost innocent, tenor lyric. Some of its impact is lost when it is sung first as a scratchy grammaphone recording and then as a brassy belt song by Fraulein Kost. At the end of the show the Emcee, rather than leaving the audience with a sardonic “Auf wiedersehen, A bientot…,” doffs his leather coat to reveal a striped concentration camp uniform complete with a yellow Jewish star. Aside from going out of the way to hit the audience over the head with a message, this creates a notable anachronism. In 1930, concentration camps and yellow-star mandates for Jews were years in the future.
As one would expect from a well-resourced theater like Riverside, the technical aspects of the show, particularly the sound and lighting, are handled capably. The upper-level catwalk is a nice, and well-used, touch on the set, though the group of three brick wall and door panels that are somehow part of both the rooming house and cabaret are shaky at times. There are a few technical oddities. For a girl with scarcely a spare mark to her name, Sally has a remarkable number of dresses, all quite stylish and sexy. The female cabaret dancers often wear garb that would not be out-of-place at a sorority slumber party. The flown-in window panel at the beginning of Act 2 is jaggedly broken before the Emcee throws a brick through it.
While Riverside’s production cannot rescue Cabaret from its built-in difficulties, its execution of the songs, its lively movement, and the vividness of its cabaret scenes makes the experience an enjoyable one for the audience.
Welcome to the Kit Kat Klub. Welcome to Berlin, Germany. The time is the late 1920s.
You remember the song lyrics: Life is a cabaret, old chum……come to the Cabaret!
The character Clifford Bradshaw sums it up best at the end of the show. There was a Cabaret, and there was a Master of Ceremonies…..and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany….It was the end of the world…and I was dancing with Sally Bowles, and we were both fast asleep. Therein beautifully and succinctly is described the political and emotional state of a country at the time of the infusion of Nazism.
As directors of this powerful work, we are passionate about Cabaret because it is a piece of musical theater that, while evolving over the course of 40 years, still remains just as potent today as at the time of its début. Following a 1966 Broadway opening, it was transformed into an Academy Award-winning film in 1972, making big stars of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. Revived briefly on Broadway in 1987, it reached its most powerful expression in 1998, winning several Tony awards yet again.
What made the 1998 production so popular was the fact that its director, Sam Mendes, chose to set it inside a true cabaret, thereby letting it become one of those shows when the audience becomes part of the performance (and, in this case, that’s not always a comfortable place to be). In the midst of political turmoil and on the verge of Germany’s economic collapse, Berlin in the late 1920’s remained a center of social and artistic innovation. The cabarets prevalent at this time embraced the political satire and the decadence of the era. Then, as now, Berlin was their nerve center, and was reputed to be the most sexually liberated metropolis in all of Europe. Thus, seated at tables with little red lamps, the audience was allowed to enter the carefree, “anything-goes,” promiscuous, and excessive world that sowed the seeds of Nazism and Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The audience is caught up in the madness of the period when it becomes complicit in the story’s excruciating narrative.
We’ve chosen to take this approach with Riverside Center’s production, believing that such an interpretation liberates the material. Extra special is the fact that Penny was a cast member of the 1998 Broadway revival. In many ways, Cabaret is a dramatic piece with a political message, trapped in the form of a typical Broadway musical. By reshaping its Broadway origins, the work can be re-imagined, with its emotionally charged love stories, fractured by politics, taking center stage.
As artists we are given a great gift, but that gift entails responsibility. We are not here not only to entertain, but also to use the medium of live theater to mesmerize, transport, educate and profoundly influence our audiences. We are truly grateful for this opportunity to do so.
Many thanks to our cast and production team for their commitment and dedication to this process. For us, it has been a joy. We applaud you!
- Master of Ceremonies (Emcee), the host at the Kit Kat Klub: Tommy McNeal
- Clifford Bradshaw, an American novelist: Mason Reich
- Fraulein Schneider, a landlady who rents rooms in her large flat: Carol Hagy
- Herr Schultz, a roomer and Fruit Shop proprietor: Ron Sarro
- Fraulein Kost, a roomer who offers favors to sailors: Andrea Kahane
- Sally Bowles, a British cabaret singer at the Kit Kat Klub: Nicole Foret Oberlietner
- Ernst Ludwig, a friendly and likable German: Todd Evan Pristas
- Max/Hermann, Kit Kat Klub owner/Klub dancer: Adam Workman
- Bobby, a dancer at the Klub: Ian Stearns
- Victor, a dancer at the Klub: Calvin Register, Jr.
- Helga, Kit Kat Klub girl: Sheri Hayden
- Elsa, Kit Kat Klub girl: Kylie Clark
- Rosie, Kit Kat Klub girl: Kendall Mostafavi
- Texas, Kit Kat Klub girl: Kate Poisson
- Frenchy, Kit Kat Klub girl: Christin Pristas
- Lula, Kit Kat Klub girl: Katelyn Stillman
- Hans/Rudy, Klub dancer/German sailor: Arthur J. Whittenberger
- Directors: Patrick A’Hearn and Penny Ayn Maas
- Production Manager: Sharon Gregory
- Technical Director and Lighting Designer: Phil Carlucci
- Stage Manager: Ben Feindt
- Assistant Stage Manager: Ashton Banks
- Senior Stage Technician: Paul Johannes
- Senior Stage Technician: Steve Thompson
- Stage Technician: Tommie Cox
- Stage Technician: Geoff McPherson
- Stage Technician Swing: Taylor Boyle
- Senior Lighting Technician: Nicky Mahon
- Lighting Technician Swing: Sharon Gregory
- Audio Technician: Joshua Watson
- Audio Technician Swing: Brady Harris
- Wardrobe Supervisor: Gaye Law
- Costume Master: Christopher Hlusko
- Master Set Carpenter/Welderr: Curtis Craddock
- Set Carpenter: John Mahon
- Master Electrician: Nicy Mahon
- Head Rigger: Paul Johannes
- Master Scenic Artist: Matthew Westcott
- Scenic Painter: Maria Duke
- Properties Supervisor: Kylie Clark
Disclaimer: Riverside Dinner Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/7819.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.