Damascus Theatre Company CabaretBy Eric Jones • Feb 20th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Damascus Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Olney – Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, Olney, MD
Through February 24th
2:30 with one intermission
$20/$18 Seniors, Students/$25 Stage Seating
Reviewed February 15th, 2013
Berlin in the early 1930’s boasted one of the most freely-accessible and unabashed LGBT nightlife scenes in the world. To call it an open environment would be a hideous understatement. Drag clubs, burlesque shows, and easy sex made Berlin a very popular destination — especially to British author Christopher Isherwood, who moved there in 1929 just as the Weimar Republic was beginning to fall. There he took many lovers (presumably including a few females) in an attempt to experience all that the seedy underbelly of German society had to offer just before the end of the world. His experiences were chronicled and published in 1939 as The Berlin Stories, later to be dramatized in the 1950’s for the stage and screen in the form of John van Druten’s I am a Camera. This was further reworked by Joe Masteroff, John Kander, and Fred Ebb into the landmark Broadway musical Cabaret in 1966 with a film version following in 1972 — a career-making venture for such stage and screen legends as Joel Grey, Liza Minelli, Jill Haworth, and Lotte Lenya. This production, innocent though slightly risqué for its time, was unsurprisingly cleansed of too many references to male homosexuality. When it was revived by director Sam Mendes at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1998 however, this new version ramped up the tension and darkness, and finally did justice to Mr. Isherwood’s true experiences in Berlin.
Unfortunately, none of these elements are present in the production of Cabaret currently being produced by Damascus Theatre Company at Olney Theatre Center. The production uses the script and score for the original 1966 version of the show, which has grown a little outdated given modern social mores — not to mention the fact that the director of this production explicitly states that this version veers furthest from the original source material. At the risk of criticizing the script chosen rather than the production itself, I have to say that this production in particular was completely devoid of the raw, urgent, gritty sexuality amidst impending doom that gives this show meaning.
Upon walking into the theatre, I found myself in a pentagon-shaped space with risers on one end and small cabaret tables on the other that put this show in the round. This was to be the Kit Kat Klub — an enigmatic non-space from which the company uses musical numbers to comment on the action of the play. Burlesque artwork on the walls and hanging lights reminiscent of the Broadway production of Spring Awakening made the set very effective — until the actors started using it. The show was meant to be presented in the round, but I can’t shake the suspicion that those seated at the cabaret tables paid extra money for three-quarters of the show that I saw. Furthermore, the only passage to the backstage area was a large door in plain view of the audience covered by a black curtain — which would have been fine if we wouldn’t have been able to see the dressing stations in full light anytime large set pieces had to be moved. This caused major traffic issues and made scene changes very tough to sit through. To compound the traffic issues even more, the performers used the corridors behind the audience risers to get around, as well as staircase aisles through the audience for entrances and exits. I liked this idea until I saw (and heard) performers whispering and socializing in full view of the audience. It’s one thing to interact onstage as a framing device, but these offstage performers showed a lack of professionalism that is absolutely inexcusable.
There were a few standout performers in the cast, but the acting overall left a lot to be desired. It was blatantly clear that no attempt whatsoever had been made by anyone involved to understand any of the German language used in the script, nor how to pronounce it. For those actors who attempted the German accent, the quality ran the gamut from extremely strong to laughably inaccurate. Many of the performances felt like people just reading lines rather than engaging the nuances of their characters — although the fault for that lies just as much with the director as with the actors. The best performance of the evening by far was Frieda Enoch as the ill-fated landlady Fraulein Schneider. Her accent was spot-on and her overall demeanor was utterly believable. It is deplorable however, that poor direction caused her scenes with paramour Herr Schultz to be stripped of all tenderness and depth — rendering their typically heartbreaking dénouement pallid and unmoving. Most disappointing for me personally was Jason Damaso as the ghostly Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub. It was plain to see that he’s a talented performer, but his lack of charisma and improvisation skills crippled his ability to perform the iconic role that made superstars of Joel Grey and Alan Cumming. Amanda Spellman was commensurate as Sally Bowles — the British star of the Kit Kat Klub and the object of Cliff’s (Isherwood’s direct equivalent/representation) brief flirtation with heterosexuality (or so it ought to have been). Lovely though her voice was, the director missed the point of Sally’s biggest number — the darkly comic and eponymous “Cabaret.” Because no real tension had been established beforehand, the song lacked the enormity of this tragic heroine’s world collapsing around her; it was less a defiant commitment to blissful ignorance and hedonism than an opportunity to simply showcase a young lady with a fantastic voice.
Director/Music Director Keith Tittermary should be commended for assembling an adept orchestra and for his arrangements of some of Kander and Ebb’s best-loved music, but his direction and his staging both have worlds of room for improvement. This script is full of complex interactions, nuanced character arcs, and extremes of human emotion — all of which seemed to have been sacrificed in favor of a pretty show that seemed to ache for the saccharine Broadway of yesteryear. The looming sense of dread as the Nazi regime draws nearer is absent from this production — replaced by a few scattered swastikas and a version of the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” that in no discernible way represents the NSDAP anthem it’s supposed to be. By toning down the already tame original version of the script, Mr. Tittermary has created a sterile, shallow interpretation of Cabaret. He has sacrificed authenticity in favor of an ensemble cohesion which alas, was not achieved. The abdication of honesty in acting as well as the utter lack of acknowledgement of the show’s gay elements put this show on par with Glee‘s blasphemous take on The Rocky Horror Show.
Cabaret‘s vague references to Nazism and attempted sexual innuendo render it unsuitable for little ones, but I cannot say that I honestly recommend this production at all. There are, of course, theatrical purists out there who would disagree with me and claim that the revival version is too dark, too sexual. Of them I ask: if you’re not going to tell the whole story authentically, what point is there in telling the story at all? Cabaret is not a show meant to keep people in their comfort zones! Even with the original script, there are opportunities to convey the darkness of this show — all of which were missed. If all of the elements of Isherwood’s fantastically debauched story are censored and polished clean, the show then defeats its own purpose and makes a “meeskite” (ugly/outcast) of not only the original author of its source material, but of all LGBT people. With a combination of poor direction and egregious miscasting, Damascus Theatre Company’s Cabaret lamentably fails to deliver on too many levels to deem worthy of a recommendation.
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” – Christopher Isherwood, “Goodbye to Berlin,” 1939
In 1929, young writer, Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood traveled to Berlin where he would remain for 4 years. In that time he got inspiration for his novellas, “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939) and “Mr. Norris Changes Trains” (1935). Combined, these would later be published as the novel “The Berlin Stories,” which John Van Druten would adapt into the play and movie, I Am A Camera (Broadway: 1951; Film: 1955). And that is the basis for Cabaret.
Now, those who are familiar with Cabaret may notice that this is not the movie. And it is not the acclaimed Sam Mendes revival. No, this is the original 1966 Broadway version, which in reality, of all the versions of Cabaret, strays the most from the original source material. But, I chose this version due to one main difference: the emphasis on the ensemble. The Academy-Award winning movie made household names of Joel Grey and Liza Minelli, and every subsequent production has recreated these tour de force performances. By going back to the original, we are truly placing the story in the ensemble. At some point in the play, every member of the ensemble becomes a camera — recording, not thinking. Clifford Bradshaw is based on Isherwood himself, but so is every other member of the ensemble. Each character is in some way a part of Isherwood, someone he met; someone he knew; each person represents a moment in time from his journeys.
And in setting the play in an actual cabaret (to borrow the German spelling), each person in the theater tonight has an opportunity to take a glimpse at what is behind the shutter. And not all of it is pretty. At this moment in time, we are in the Weimar Republic, New Year’s Eve, 1930. In 3 years, on January 30, 1933, this world would forever change. This is that moment in time, when the realization of what is to come becomes evident.
So as you enter our club today, I want you to be a camera.
Observe and record.
Photos provided by Damascus Theatre Company
- Master of Ceremonies (M.C): Jason Damaso
- Clifford Bradshaw: Carl Williams
- Ernst Ludwig: Matt Kopp
- Fraulein Schneider: Frieda Enoch
- Fraulein Kost: Mary McConnell
- Herr Schultz: Micky Goldstein
- Sally Bowles: Amanda Spellman
- Kit Kat Girls: Laura Hetherington, Megan May, Debbi Patton, Tonya Pleasants, Leah Schwartz, Kedren Spencer
- Kit Kat Boys: Zach Harris, DJ Wojciehowski
- Two Ladies: Laura Hetherington, Megan May
The Kit Kat Band
- Piano/Conductor: Arielle Bayer
- Drums: Ricky Wise, Nate Hilburger
- Reeds: Bob Greene
- Trumpet: Earl Smith
- Trombone: Kenny Horan
- Guitar/Bass: Belvedere Morton
- Director/Music Director: Keith Tittermary
- Co-Producers: Carol Boyle & Kathleen Richards
- Choreographer: Laurie Newton
- Assistant Director/Dance Captain: Megan May
- Rehearsal Pianists: Arielle Bayer & Keith Tittermary
- Orchestra Director: Arielle Bayer
- Technical Director/Lighting Design: Rick Swink
- Sound Design: Bill Brown
- Properties/Set Dressing Set Painting: Maria Littlefield
- Set Design: Bill Brown
- Master Carpenter: Jim Korte
- Stage Manager: Cathy Clark
- Costume Design: Flo Arnold
- Program: Scott Richards
- Webmaster: Vitol Wiacek
- Ticket Sales/House Manager: Elli Swink
- Concessions Manager: Kelly Tilton
- Set Construction: Jime Korte, Bruce Clark, Scott Conlon, Julia Junghans, Bill Lebair, Richard Ridge
Disclaimer: Damascus Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. DTC also purchased advertising on the ShowBizRadio web site, which did not influence this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9157.
Eric Jones , a native of Frederick, MD, has been heavily involved in every single facet of theatre for the majority of his life. He has been seen on stages in Frederick, Charles Town, WV, Kensington, MD, Greenbelt, MD, Gettysburg, PA, and many others. A two-time WATCH Award nominee, Eric has over 80 shows to his credit and is a double-graduate of Frederick County's Arts and Communications Academy in music and theatre. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from the University of Maryland and currently lives in Frederick.