Thursday, January 15, 2009

Boston does Berlin Badly: "Cabaret" at New Rep

The most memorable performances of the New Repertory Company's production of Cabaret are Cheryl McMahon and Paul Farwell, performing Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, respectively. These minor characters normally serve as a subplot to provide a personal account of the horrendous effects of the Nazi rise to power against spectacular choreography of escapist musical numbers. In this misdirected performance at New Repertory Theatre, however, the love affair between Fraulein Schneider and Schultz delivers the only believable and engaging storyline of the evening.

The presumed protagonists of the show, Aimee Doherty as Sally Bowles and David Krinitt as Cliff, have the acumen of talented college performers, but feel dreadfully out of place on a professional stage. Ms. Doherty certainly has vocal talent and beauty to spare, but her Sally Bowles is more akin to an undergraduate sorority girl taking a semester abroad than the worldy-wise chanteuse whose "life is a cabaret." Her rendition of the title song is a perfect example: delivered with vocal reserve and practiced manner as opposed to the emotional intensity and abandon usually attributed to this show-stopper. Instead, the 11:00 number for this show became Fraulein Schneider's (Ms. McMahon's) powerfully delivered and emotionally wrought "What Would You Do?" which expresses every ounce of regret, dread, and reservation that the show portends to represent. Unfortunately, misguided direction, choreography, and casting make every other aspect of this version fall seriously short of the works' potential.

The other oft-cited protagonist of the show is usually the emcee, portrayed to TONY-winning fame by both Joel Grey and Alan Cumming. John Kuntz, a local celebrity in his own right, was selected to portray this iconic figure and one wonders if his reputation preceded his musical theatre ability in this casting choice. Mr. Kuntz's performance displays no musical theatre talent whatsoever, either in voice or movement. Remember that high school or college fraternity variety show where the class clown wore a dress and too much make-up? That is the best description for Mr. Kuntz's abysmal performance. The only glimmer of his talent in the entire evening is at the end of the show when the emcee is facing deportment to a Nazi concentration camp (metaphorically, of course); in this moment he delivered a passing nuance that suggests why he might have been cast in the role. Other than this fleeting second, every other moment of his performance on stage was nothing less than painful to watch.

Director Rick Lombardo apparently got lost in translation lifting artistic inspiration from Sam Mendes' 1990s revival, Fosse's 1970s film adaptation, and the original, 1960s made-for-Broadway musical by Harold Prince. The show becomes a hodgepodge connect-the-artistic-dots rather than a well-staged, original production. The Kit Kat girls, for example, wear the hyper-realistic black negligees of the Mendes production while the male chorus wear tuxedos more in line with the safe, 1960s version. The gay themes reinstated from the original text by Fosse and expounded upon by Mendes are present, but through a very limited lens. The aforementioned productions and revivals provided a post-modern, revisionist perspective thus contemporizing the show while bringing a more diverse and expansive historical truth to the story. Mr. Lombardo's direction lacks this skill and, instead, presents a watered-down version thus undermining the power of performance in times of political repression.

The perfect example of Mr. Lombardo's misunderstanding of the politics of this piece (and of performance) is his use of video projections of Hitler. Cabaret is not a play about Hitler, but about the power of one man's political and genocidal aspirations to brainwash an entire nation into servitude. The image of Hitler is far less powerful than the embodiment of a Nazi soldier or the presence of a swastika armband on stage. The cheap device of using videos of Hitler seems to be an attempt to reflect our current culture's obsession with screens and "reality." It is refreshing to observe, however, that the most powerful moment in the musical is when Ernst removes his jacket to reveal a swastika armband. This was the only moment when the audience audibly gasped as one. It should be a lesson to Mr. Lombardo (and to us all) that the subtlety and cultural unconscious of semiological embodiment is far more powerful than any image projected onto a screen can convey.

Cabaret is Mr. Lombardo's swan song as he leaves Boston to assume artistic leadership of San Jose Rep. If we gain anything from Mr. Lombardo's direction of Cabaret, it should be that embodiment on stage is far more powerful than the cheap tricks of cinematic realism that profligate our society and culture. For the embodiment of historical truth is far more powerful than the presentation of cinematic representations. And that is no small legacy to leave...

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