Chicago Theatre Review
Everybody Loves a Winner
Cabaret – Paramount Theatre
Halfway through the first act, Sally Bowles sings “Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky…everybody loves a winner.” Well, never fear: Paramount can boast another well-deserved victory. In this scintillating new production, boldly directed and choreographed by Katie Spelman, the company demonstrates a brazen, undaunted pluckiness, with just a touch of innocence. Jim Corti’s theatre has come a long way since his productions of “Hair” and “Rent,” somewhat toned down, one suspects, to acknowledge the more conservative tastes of suburban audiences. But Spelman’s production is very adult. She recreates, in her own style, the gritty decadence of the 1998 and 2014 versions of the show. Paramount Theatre’s winter offering not only makes Aurora sizzle during this frigid February, but the production lives up to the theatre’s well-earned reputation for producing flashy, no-holds-barred musicals that rival Broadway.
Set in Berlin during the late 1920’s, Joe Masteroff’s libretto portrays the fictional, depraved Kit Kat Klub as a metaphor for the foreboding menace lurking in Weimar Germany. As told through the eyes of Clifford Bradshaw, a struggling, somewhat naive young American writer seeking inspiration for his first novel, he observes that Berlin is like one big, wild, tawdry party. Bradshaw says, “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.” By the end of the musical, mom and dad have arrived.
He meets Fraulein Schneider, his kindly new landlady; Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor; Ernst Ludwig, who not only becomes Clifford’s first student of English, but offers him an illicit way to earn some much-needed cash; Fraulein Kost, a bitter, feisty lady of the night; and Sally Bowles, the nightclub’s sassy songstress headliner and party girl. When the parents finally return home, it’s in the form of the Nazi Party. The young author foresees Germany’s downward spiral toward the Holocaust. Suddenly life isn’t as beautiful as the Kit Kat Klub’s creepy Emcee keeps proclaiming.
Audiences were first introduced to this musicalized adaptation of John Van Druten’s drama, “I Am a Camera,” back in 1966. Van Druten had based his play upon Christopher Isherwood’s short novel, Goodbye to Berlin. The original musical production, which earned eight Tony Awards, made a star of Joel Grey, in the role of the Emcee. The musical was revived in a most conventional 1987 production; but the 1998 reimagining, based upon Sam Mendes’ ribald West End production, became the exciting, new definitive version. That Studio 54 revival garnered four more Tony Awards and sparked a new audience for the musical, which reopened again in 2014. Paramount’s production is a re-imagining of this show, and is smart, saucy and sexy.
Joe Masteroff’s re-invention of the book musical cleverly juxtaposes the story’s darker, dramatic scenes with bright, raucous, often racy songs and production numbers that take place inside the smoky glow of the cabaret nightclub. As the play progresses these scenes grow ever more threatening.
The ubiquitous, sexually uninhibited Emcee is played with devilish glee and sinister kinkiness by Joseph Anthony Byrd, direct from his Broadway performance in “Kinky Boots.” He welcomes the audience (“Willkommen”) and promises an evening ahead of debauchery and fun. Mr. Byrd impresses with each musical number, particularly the melancholy “I Don’t Care Much,” performed in drag. He titillates in the delightfully
R-rated “Two Ladies” (coupling with provocative ensemble members William Carlos Angulo and J Tyler Whitmer), drives home a sensitive point with “If You Could See Her” (featuring the lithe Adrienne Storrs) and opens Act II by kicking up a storm(trooper) with the other Kit Kat girls. The Emcee’s sultry performance of “Money,” one of three songs adapted for this production from the 1972 film version, is terrific. Like a smirking deity, this Emcee is always lurking in the background, constantly observing and commenting on everyone and everything that happens.
The exquisite Kelly Felthous (so fierce as Roxie Hart in “Chicago” at Drury Lane) is again magnificent, making her Paramount debut as Sally Bowles. She throws herself into the role of the Kit Kat Klub’s self-deluded English headliner. With her 30’s movie star look and brassy sound, this diminutive little lady with the colossal voice sings the heck out of numbers like “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr,” a lamentably hopeful “Maybe This Time” and a vehement, gut-wrenching “Cabaret.” But Ms. Felthous not only makes every musical number her own, she proves again that she’s a skilled young actress, as well. Each song becomes a musical monologue and every dramatic scene shines, as well.
Other standouts in this production include the handsome Garrett Lutz as Clifford Bradshaw, the young American writer in search of literary inspiration. Last enjoyed in Marriott Theatre’s “Newsies,” Mr. Lutz portrays Clifford more like Isherwood, the real-life author on whom he’s modeled. His character is cautiously on-the-fence as to whether he’s straight, gay or bisexual. Bobby and Sally constantly kiss and touch him, and his reactions continually vary. Even Ernst Ludwig, played with guarded sinister affability by the excellent Brandon Springman, finds the budding American author a possible temptation. The always impressive Meghan Murphy also flirts with Cliff, as the spirited and spunky lady of the night, Fraulein Kost. Both she and Springman lend their powerful voices to the goosebump-inducing Act I finale, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
But the heartbreaking side story of a mature couple’s romance and its sad consequences is brilliantly played by Award-winning Chicago actors Hollis Resnik, as Fraulein Schneider, and Ron E. Rains, as Herr Schultz. Their story is easily the heart and soul of this musical, representing all the everyday people caught up in Germany’s maelstrom. Their portrayal of a middle-age German woman trying to survive Berlin’s political upheaval and her Jewish Romeo, a kind, elderly fruit vendor, who only wants to share a little happiness during his golden years, is both pitiful and poignant. Humorous songs like “So What” and “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” along with the beautifully sentimental “Married” and the desperately despairing “What Would You Do?” add up to everything that this extraordinary musical is about.
All of these performances come together, thanks to Ms. Spelman’s sharp direction and superb choreography. Scott Davis’ sparsely furnished, cavernous and multileveled scenic design is a vast, deteriorating, ghost-filled environment for these characters to haunt. The superb lighting design by Yael Lubetzky sparks the life in this story. Sensuous period fashions, created by Mieka van der Ploeg, and wig, hair and makeup designs, by Katie Cordts, say almost as much about each character as their songs and dialogue. Jeff Award-winning Musical director Tom Vendafreddo magnificently conducts a pit orchestra that is, as ever, impressive. They are the unsung luminaries who provide much of the brilliance in this production.
Chicagoans will find this Kit Kat Klub ablaze with talented performers and musicians, generating enough heat to counteract the cold February winds blowing outside. Despite the many recent local productions of this musical, in light of our country’s current political climate this one truly deserves a look. It reflects the feeling many share that history’s repeating itself, while demonstrating again the excellence of the Paramount Theatre. This production also reminds audiences of the grit and greatness that Kander and Ebb created in their musical about a city called Berlin, a fictional nightspot called the Kit Kat Klub and a girl named Sally Bowles. She sings that “everybody loves a winner.” Well, Sally must’ve been thinking of this sensational production, because a winner it is!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 7-March 18 by Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 630-896-6666 or by going to www.paramountaurora.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.