Chicago Theatre Review
In Here Life is Beautiful
Cabaret – Citadel Theatre Company
Coincidentally, a day after New York’s Roundabout Theatre opened the third Broadway revival of this Kander & Ebb classic, Citadel raps up their twelfth season with the same multi-award winning 1966 musical. Set in Berlin during the late 1920’s, Joe Masteroff’s libretto uses the fictional Kit Kat Klub as a metaphor for the foreboding menace in Weimar Germany. As told through the eyes of Clifford Bradshaw, a struggling young American writer seeking inspiration for his first novel, Berlin is like one big, wild, tawdry party (“Everyone’s having such a great time. Like a bunch of kids playing in their room–getting wilder and wilder, knowing any minute their parents are going to come home”). He meets Fraulein Schneider, his kindly new landlady; Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor; Ernst Ludwig, who offers him ways to earn some extra cash; Fraulein Kost, a feisty lady of the night; and Sally Bowles, the nightclub’s sassy headliner and party poster girl. The “parents” finally do come home in the form of the Nazi Party. The young author foresees Germany’s downward spiral toward the Holocaust and suddenly life isn’t as beautiful as the Kit Kat Klub’s creepy Emcee once proclaimed.
Robert D. Estrin, talented director of Citadel’s “Other People’s Money” and “Lend Me a Tenor,” uses this modest space to create a big, truly respectable production. While the original ’66 version might’ve been a better choice for typical North Shore audience, Estrin takes a chance, putting his own spin on the more risque 1998 Sam Mendes interpretation. Beyond telling the tragic story of Cliff, Sally Bowles and her circle of friends, this adaptation both eliminates some of the songs from the original version, while adding or substituting numbers from the popular 1972 film version. It also glories in its shock value, geared especially for a more jaded 21st century audience, and may actually be closer to the reality of that time period. Estrin pushes the envelope, causing a few gasps from more conservative audience members on opening night.
The large cast is a talented crew, most of whom display expert vocal training as well as being fine actors and competent dancers. In such a tiny auditorium, especially when utilizing such splendid singing talent, the use of microphones is unnecessary. Every performer appeared capable of belting over the accompaniment of Randy Casey’s reliable four-member onstage band without any trouble. Leading the cast is handsome Dominic Rescigno as the Emcee. Combining Joel Grey’s formally-attired host with Alan Cumming’s outrageously decadent master of ceremonies, the result is a balance between the comic and the macabre. Rescigno’s comfort groping and smooching both sexes reinforces his lewd, androgynous status. And while the young actor is a bit overindulgent with his ad libs and dramatic pauses, his best moment comes he drops his persona, as during his sincerely sung, “I Don’t Care Much.”
As Clifford Bradshaw, Kraig Kelsey does a great job portraying the young author’s journey from puppy-like awe to maturity, loss of innocence and understanding. It’s too bad this version eliminates Cliff’s big song as Kelsey’s fine singing voice is only heard briefly in a couple numbers. Cassie Johnson is a lovely, petite Sally Bowles. Again, with such a powerhouse voice, the body mic isn’t needed. Often a bit over-the-top, the actress reigns in the theatricalism with a terrifically honest “Maybe This Time,” and she leaves it all on the stage with her spot-on rendition of the often misinterpreted title song. Ms. Johnson demonstrates she clearly understands both her character and the truth behind this song.
No surprise, the show’s finest performance comes from veteran actress Michelle McKenzie-Voigt. A Chicago favorite, Ms. Voigt beautifully brings to this production the earthiness and poignancy found in Fraulein Schneider. Beautifully sung and wringing every ounce of humor and pathos from all of her numbers, Ms. Voigt’s eleventh hour “What Would You Do?” is her crowning moment. Her break-up scene with Herr Schultz is touching and honestly played, foreshadowing the downward spiral of this play. While Bill Chamberlain brings an impressive singing voice to Herr Shultz (and definitely doesn’t need a microphone), his characterization is a bit mechanical and unmotivated. Sandee Greene’s Fraulein Kost and Michael D. Graham’s Ernst Ludwig are competent in their roles but, in the company of such other fine vocalists, their “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” lacks impact. Although gaudier makeup and a few bruises would bring authenticity to this almost wholesome-looking ensemble, the Kit Kat boys and girls do a great job flirting, dancing and singing. And Shawn Quinlan, doing double duty as Hans, costumes the ensemble in appropriate period fashion.
With a musical that’s not only a classic, but has been or will be seen on almost every area stage this year, it’s difficult to imagine how a director can reinvent it and still provide an entertaining production that’s true to the playwright. Mr. Estrin has accomplished this difficult feat. Although pacing sometimes suffers and the production feels a little too long, this director has infused his musical with some exciting, young talent who will hopefully be returning to this theatre. Making the most of its intimate space, Estrin creates a finely-executed piece of theatre that Citadel audiences will not only enjoy but will be talking about for a long time.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 25-May 25 by Citadel Theatre Company, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-735-8554 or by going to www.citadeltheatre.org.
Further information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.