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Theater Info for the Washington DC region

St. Mark’s Players Cabaret

By • May 16th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Cabaret
St. Mark’s Players: (Info) (Web)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC
Through May 19th
2:40 with intermission
$20/$18 Seniors, Students
Reviewed May 11th, 2013

Cabaret is a musical based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, which in turn was adapted from the 1939 short novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. The book is by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

History, art and theatre are all about context. Unsurprisingly, over the course of the 47 years since Joel Grey first stepped out to a drum roll and cymbal crash, welcoming the audience to the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightclub in early Nazi-era Berlin, Cabaret has seen its share of changes. Several songs have made the transition from the 1972 film directed by Bob Fosse and Sam Mendes’ subsequent London stage revival. Some changes are more substantial than others. All these adjustments to the music and book are positive steps toward better understanding of the harsh reality of life in Germany between the wars, and the effect of a struggling economy on people – issues relevant in today’s world as they were in late 1966 when Cabaret first opened, with the US squarely in the middle of the Vietnam War. Rick Hayes’ production, playing through May 19th at St. Mark’s Church, is no exception. Some of his adjustments to the play are absolutely inspired in their ultimate impact. Thanks to Meghan Winch’s dramaturgical efforts (reproduced below), St. Mark’s Players provide plenty of historical background for an exceptionally difficult subject.

From David McMullin’s entrance, as the unctuous and morally ambiguous Emcee, to the very end, his presence and voice serve as powerful, ever-present reminders of the constant threat, even as he implores us to forget our troubles and enjoy what he and his Kit Kat girls have to offer.

Jarring real-world reality clashes with devil-may-care decadence and bohemia as American would-be author Cliff Bradshaw (David Wilder, in a performance reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart’s wild-eyed optimism), steps off the train in Berlin just at the turn of the year. He is enthusiastic and idealistic, clearly a fish out of water as he eventually comes to understand his environment.

Fräulein Schneider (Mary Ayala-Bush, with a voice warmly reminiscent of Lotte Lenya’s) provides us with a quick introduction to desperation and dashed hopes as a woman who survived World War I and has learned to make do. Ayala-Bush imbues her character with the virtues of a disillusioned youth and pragmatism in “So What?” while welcoming Cliff as a source of hope and income, however small.

The chemistry between Cliff and Sally Bowles works well, as they hook up in “Perfectly Marvelous” (with kudos to Ashley Zielinski for her flawless British accent); however, it is the relationship between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, an amiable and sincerely mystified elderly Jewish fruit vendor and boarding house resident (played by Stephen Yednock), especially in their several charming numbers together, that shed the most light on the plights of the older population who lived for so long in the shadow of endless wars. Schultz’s plaintive “I’m German” speaks volumes about those who met their ends with Hitler’s Final Solution.

The despicable pair, Fräulein Kost (Jill Vohr) and Ernst Ludwig (Mark Allen), ultimately draw these two couples into the horror of World War II’s nationalism and insanity.

Elijah Henry Lawrence’s rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a spectacularly beautiful anthem to German self-determination that devolves to a Nazi march, is just as chilling as it was when I worked on the show in college, some 30 years ago. The song contains all the fearsome power the Third Reich brought to bear on the German people. Lawrence’s pristine voice continues to raise goose bumps days after the show’s end.

By the time we reach Sally’s bittersweet swan song, “Cabaret,” into which Zielinski pours all her anger and fear, it’s clear this is a last desperate grasp at decadence before Germany finally succumbs to the power of Hitler and WWII.

If overt themes of sexuality and racism are the pivot point on which the second act revolves, especially in the way each character reacts to the trap of life in pre-Nazi Berlin, the conclusion is shockingly powerful in its simplicity, it is a natural, horrific conclusion to a story that continues to draw audiences for its music and story, almost fifty years after its première.

Rikki Howie’s ambitious choreography shines best in the lively “Money Song/Sitting Pretty,” a winning combination of the original Broadway version and the movie song that replaced it in some later productions.

Ceci Albert and Lisa Brownsword have made some interesting costume choices, in particular in the dress of the party-goers at the end of the first act, but in general the costumes work to enhance the story, and their interpretation of “Sitting Pretty” is just plain fun. Jerry M. Dale, Jr.’s lighting design marks the differences between nightclub and real world, and is most effective during the large production numbers.

Most disappointing are serious sound issues relating to poorly connected body microphones (not the first time I’ve noted problems with SMP’s sound system). Depending on flawed wiring has the unfortunate effect of tearing the audience out of the moment because we are unable to understand all the words to the songs or dialogue.

Cabaret was the production that launched my theatre career and this is the third version I’ve seen, in addition to the movie. While I know the show, my companion did not, and she was lost several times during the performance we saw. It’s a shame to see such hard work damaged by failed technology. Music Director J.N. Wickert, III is to be commended for keeping his “Beautiful” orchestra from taking over the space, especially in light of the sound system.

Bravo to the cast and crew in general for a performance well done, in spite of the sound’s considerable flaws.

Director’s Note

Approaching such a well know show as Cabaret can be problematic because the Fosse movie is so well-known, as is Liza Minnelli’s performance. But the movie, as is often the case, is not the original stage musical. Many changes were made for the film and plot lines dropped, so if you are seeing the stage musical for the first time, be prepared to be surprised.

I approached Cabaret as more of a serious piece of theater set in a decadent, troubling time for Germany and the world. You will walk out humming the songs but hopefully you will also walk out with a sense of sadness at the loss of innocent lives and a cultural heritage that left us with people who disappeared from physical existence but not from our hearts and minds.

-Rick Hayes

Dramaturg’s Notes

Historical Context

“And there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany, and it was the end of the world.”

A scant 10 years before the start of Cabaret, Germany was in shambles; WWI was lost, and reparations in the billions were breaking the country’s economic back. In April of 1919, 1 US dollar was worth 12 marks. By December of 1923, 1 US dollar was worth approximately 4 trillion marks. A huge portion of the male population of working age were dead or injured from the fighting, and many of the women left behind were turning to prostitution in the city streets to keep themselves and their families from starving.

In an effort to appease the victors and ease the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the German political system was heavily altered and liberalized. The new Weim[a]r Republic, so named for a German town that had managed to retain relative peace throughout the Great War, was a strongly democratic system, with suffrage at 20 and a political system designed to keep any one faction from controlling the government. This was a major shift in German society, and the resulting confusion and extremism birthed more than 20 separate coalitions from all across the political spectrum.

By 1923, however, Germany’s prospects were brightening. Gustav Stresemann was chancellor for 100 days, and remained foreign minister until his death. He was instrumental in Germany’s recovery, managing to work with Britain and France to bring down the crushing reparations bill, halting the steep inflation with the introduction of a new currency, and raising $800 million in loans, mostly from America. For the next several years, relative prosperity reigned.

This new, more permissive social structure coupled with the sudden infusion of cash made Berlin a cultural epicenter. Art, music, theater and science all experienced major booms, and Germans and tourists alike flocked to the city to experience the cultural renaissance. The explosion of creativity coupled with the more relaxed views of sex brought on in part by the widespread prostitution also made Berlin a major site for erotic entertainment. There were an estimated 500 establishments devoted to sexual expression, including several clubs catering to the homosexual population.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, just three months before the opening scene of Cabaret, it was disastrous for the tenuous hold Germany had on prosperity. All of the American loans that were keeping Germany’s economy afloat were called in at once, and the country was plunged once again into poverty. The freewheeling parties and sexual freedom, which had been a kind of celebration of good fortune, now became a desperate clinging to a life that reality could no longer support.

The world of Cabaret is filled with severe disappointment, and it is in that terrible disillusionment with a system that held so much promise that the Nazis were able to seize power.

Come to us, they said. The republic couldn’t take care of you. We will.

-Meghan Winch

Cast (In Order of Appearance)

  • Emcee: David McMullin
  • Anika: Rosemary Lane
  • Api Von Schnitzel: Nila Kay
  • Cece: Heather Nadolny
  • Greta: Nikki Gerber
  • Helga: Meg Glassco
  • Hazel: Cassandra Prickett
  • Kizzy: KJ Jacks
  • Lana: Toby Nelson
  • Yummy/Fraulein Kost: Jill Vohr
  • Waiter/Conductor/Bobby/Guard: Elijah Lawrence
  • Maitre D/RudylVictor/Taxi Man/Coco: Rudy Schreiber Jr.
  • Sally Bowles: Ashley Zielinski
  • Cliff Bradshaw: David Wilder
  • Ernst Ludwig: Mark Allen
  • Fraulein Schneider: Mary Ayala-Bush
  • Herr Schultz: Stephen Yednock
  • Max: Rick Warfield

Orchestra

  • Piano: Valerie A. Higgs
  • Keyboard: Jeff Kempskie
  • Reeds: Katrina Ambrose, Renae Smith, Gwyn Jones, Mitch Bassman, Chris Epinger, Jeff Kahan, Bryan Cook, Miles Smith
  • Violin: Kirby Lee, Devon Oviedo
  • Cello: Tom Zebovitz
  • Trumpet: Paul Weiss, Jose Oviedo
  • Trombone: Rick Schultz
  • Percussion: Manny Arciniega
  • Audition Pianists: Matt Jeffrey, Amy Conley
  • Rehearsal Pianists: Matt Jeffrey, Amy Conley, Jeff Kempskie

Production Team

  • Director: Rick Hayes
  • Music Director: J.N. Wickert III
  • Choreographer: Rikki Howie
  • Stage Manager: Madison Hartke-Weber
  • Technical Director: RC Bates
  • Producer: Meghan Winch
  • Accompanist: Valerie A. Higgs
  • Dance Captain: Rosslyn R. Fernandez
  • Sound Board Operator: Josh Canary
  • Lighting Design: Jerry M Dale, Jr
  • Master Electrician: Jerry M Dale, Jr
  • Light Board Operator: Roger Munter
  • Properties Design: Heather Cipu, Cameron Lane
  • Set Design: Rick Hayes
  • Set Construction: RC Bates
  • Costume Design: Ceci Albert, Lisa Brownsword
  • Make-Up Consultant: Rick Hayes
  • Box Office Manager: Colin Redick
  • House Managers: Sarah Reed, Rachel McConnell
  • Photography: Chuck Divine, Colin Redick
  • Poster/Cover Art: Jennifer Reitz

Disclaimer: St. Mark’s Players provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is founder and Artistic Director of OutOftheBlackBox Theatre Company (O2B2) and General Manager of the Greenbelt Arts Center. Since 2006 Betsy has worked as a director, producer, designer and more. Betsy has also worked with Washington Revels, Arena Stage, the now-defunct Harlequin Dinner Theatre and with community theatre companies both in Maryland and in upstate New York. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Technical Theatre from SUNY New Paltz. Through Hawkeswood Productions, Betsy produces archival performance videos and YouTube highlight spots.

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