By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
Point Park Conservatory Theatre Company debuts one of its brand new black box theater spaces, the Rauh Theatre, by opening its season with Kander and Ebb’s iconic “Cabaret.”
Based on Christopher Isherwood’s “I am a Camera,” “Cabaret” is a snapshot of Germany, right before the impending chaos of World War II. Decadence abounds, especially in the eponymous cabaret.
Seeking inspiration for his writer’s block, American author Cliff Bradshaw (Evan Ellicott Wormald) heads to Berlin, and becomes enamored and entrenched in the lives of the performers at the Kit Kat Club.
The cabaret is a low and lascivious joint filled with scantily-clad young women and dashing but equally provocatively-dressed young men. The entertainment is conducted by the Emcee (Will Burke) who slinks around the club with a gargantuan grin – looking a lot like Brain Bolland’s artistic representation of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker (Google it).
Cliff enters the club and runs into a flaming old flame, Bobby (Michael Morley), one of the dashing young performers. Then, he meets the headliner, Sally Bowles (Alexis Rae Smith). A detour to the wrong dressing room creates an interesting situation. Plot twist!
Soon, Cliff and Sally are cohabitating in a building run by Fraulein Schneider (Lielle Kaidar). The POSSLQs befriend their new neighbors. There’s the kind and patient Jewish fruit vendor, Herr Schultz (Matt Fawcett) and a hooker with a heart of Nazi gold, Fraulein Kost (Allison Beauregard). Cliff supplements his income teaching English to Ernst Ludwig (Gill Vaughn-Spencer) and his friends.
When money is tight, Cliff takes a job from Ernst as a messenger moving between Germany and France. Unbeknownst to our hero, the briefcase he transports is filled with some sort of Nationalist treasure (Nationalist as in Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei AKA the Nazi party).
While fear, hatred and divisive politics (ominously current again) infiltrate Berlin, the show must go on, and it’s all fun and games at the Kit Kat Club until someone gets hurt.
P.S. It’s Cliff. Cliff gets beat up by Brown Shirts.
There’s a lot more to “Cabaret.” The show has some really fun musical numbers like “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Two Ladies” and “Maybe This Time,” perennial favorites at every piano bar in Provincetown.
Each song – every note – performed by an astounding young cast.
Burke is incredible as the Emcee. He struts and saunters around the stage as if he owns it. He is charismatic, charming and joyfully malevolent.
Smith’s Bowles was also impressive. She was poised and yet vulnerable. It was a nuanced performance. Sally Bowles hides a deep complexity behind a mask of frivolity and Smith captured the layers perfectly.
The doomed romance between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz was poignantly performed by Kaidar and Fawcett. It’s a sad and touching moment.
For the leading man, Cliff isn’t given a lot to do. The character spends most of his time basking in Sally’s bright glow. He doesn’t seem to have any emotions beside shame, until the second act. When he does finally gets a chance to shine, Wormald does so brilliantly.
Thanks to the masterful direction of Zeva Barzell, the chorus of young men and women each get a wonderful little moment. Barzell’s squeezes every erg of vitality out of the young, enthusiastic cast.
The Kit Kat band played in perfect pitch. They were even dressed for the occasion. In many shows, the band either overpowers the singers or the microphones overpowers the band. The music for “Cabaret” was in the Goldilocks zone. It was just right.
Costume Designer Cathleen Crocker-Perry brings her A-game. The costumes are imaginative, inventive, wild and wonderful. Burke’s Emcee is given so many clever costumes, and he wears them with panache. In a drag outfit at the beginning of the second act, the Emcee looks like a cross between “Hot in Cleveland” star Wendie Malick, and femme fatale Natasha from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
Johnmichael Bohach transforms a dark, little black box into a sumptuous feast for the eyes. Deep, rich crimson drapes hang between pillars of brick, partially obscuring a dark chestnut fleur de lis print wallpaper. The drapes are bits of fabric from the curtains of the old playhouse theater. It’s a reverential callback to the first show in a brand new venue. It’s also an ingenious sleight-of-hand trick by Bohach.
The play happily trundles along until the Nazi’s rise to power and everything gets exceedingly worse. The finale is staggering, heart-wrenching and feels hauntingly familiar (see recent newspaper headlines).
Because so many German citizens just let the wave of fear and hatred take them downstream, “Cabaret” becomes oddly empowering. You leave wanting to do something.
Lift a glass to the beginning of remarkable new season with the perfectly marvelous “Cabaret.”
The bar has been set very high for Point Park’s newest venue. Long live the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Unfortunately, “Cabaret” is sold out for the remainder of its run at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, 350 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. However, you can find additional details about the show and the theater here.