Theater Review: CABARET (CVRep in Cathedral City)

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by Tony Frankel on January 26, 2024

in Theater-Palm Springs (Coachella Valley)

Cabaret was and remains one of the boldest and most innovative experiments in the history of musical theater, a ravishing work that has neither lost its power nor its pertinence no matter what one does with it. (If you think you’ve seen Cabaret because you saw the movie, you don’t know this show.) With a book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, it’s a theatrically electrifying, dramatically thrilling portrait of a moment in history that can never be ignored — the rise of Nazism in post-depression Germany — because it should never be repeated. What’s shocking is that it looks a lot like a metaphor for own own bewildering times. Perhaps that is why productions of Cabaret are popping up worldwide, with the London version headed to Broadway. In San Diego alone, there were four productions recently, including The Old Globe.

Cecily Dowd as Sally

Now, a fine revival has hit the boards in Palm Springs at CV Rep, which had a hit this season with the amazing rethinking of The Fantasticks. It’s not a runaway hit, but certainly worth recommending. With an astounding production of Avenue Q at Revolution, which just closed shop, I am stunned at the amount of talent pouring into the Coachella Valley. And this outing is proof of that. Additionally, veteran watchers such as myself will be enthralled by some great new touches in this Cabaret, guided by Executive Artistic Director Adam Karsten.

Leslie Tinarro, Fred Frabotta, Ben Sears & company

Based on gay author Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Diaries, and the ensuing play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, Cabaret is a cautionary tale about getting caught up in history and getting out just in time. A portrait of decadent Berlin society as Germany moves relentlessly toward the Nazi era in the early 1930s, the action centers within the sleazy Kit Kat Club, a sex-drenched second-rate nightclub presided over by a character known only as the Master of Ceremonies, here played by the very strong performer Kristen Howe, who switches the normally gender-nonconforming role into a belting smarmy wisecracker (and, boy, can Howe belt). Howe, who appeared in CVRep’s Fun Home, is a wonderful performer, but I’m a bit mystified as to this casting, as she is neither mysterious nor scary nor androgynous (she’s dressed as a man but plays as a woman). The understudy is Erik Scott Romney, who you will see as the club owner, Max.

Kristen Howe

This more risqué rendition of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s 1998 Roundabout Broadway revival updates Masteroff‘s 1966 book. This one is decidedly more decadent, sexual, poignant, and dark than previous versions, eliminating some of the unimprovable songs (“Meeskite”, “The Telephone Song”, and “Sitting Pretty”), but adding three songs from the film version, as well as the Emcee’s lesser known and eminently haunting “I Don’t Care Much,” which was cut from the original production. Howe’s shining moment came during this haunting number, which Karsten triumphantly placed as background to a very dramatic scene.

Cecily Dowd as Sally and Marrick Smith as Cliff

Isherwood’s surrogate is Clifford Bradshaw, magnificently played by Marrick Smith, who I saw in the original Broadway cast of Fun Home. This new version removes Bradshaw’s ballad (“Why Should I Wake Up?”), but we get enough vocals to know Smith is definitely a Broadway pro. Cliff slowly gets tangled in the dirty doings of Berlin, enjoying its last fling of freedom before the Weimar Republic succumbs to the Third Reich. A poor writer from Pennsylvania, he is seduced by sex and money as his world spins out of control. He becomes a smuggler employed by the infamous Ernst Ludwig, embodied by a pitch-perfect Ben Sears, who is showcased in a song added from the film, “Money”; it’s the first time I’ve seen Ernst in this number, which makes perfect sense (another awesome Karsten touch).

Cecily Dowd as Sally

While he may be gay (remember, this is Isherwood we’re talking about), Cliff becomes involved with self-destructive Sally Bowles, a capricious goodtime girl and second-rate singer from England who won’t let the party end. And Cecily Dowd (who was also in CVRep’s Fun Home) is so good in the part that it’s almost like seeing Sally for the first time, especially given her youth (the character is based upon 19-year-old cabaret singer Jean Ross). Dowd’s interpretations of “Mein Herr” and “Don’t Tell Mama” — executed with a loose brilliance — show off the songs but also magically gives us an inkling that Sally is replaceable as a singer, and indeed could even get laid off by her lecherous and profit-conscious boss Max, which, in fact, is what happens soon enough. And, in the title song, Hayman gives us Sally in all her confusion and desperation and fear as well as what remains of her determination.

Fred Frabotta as Herr Schultz, Leslie Tinnaro as Fraulein Schneider

Equally entrapped by the bad times that will doom millions are Cliff’s landlady Fräulein Schneider (Leslie Tinnaro) and her ersatz lover Herr Schultz (Fred Frabotta), a Jewish fruitmonger who forlornly hopes that being born German will protect him from the Brown Shirts. Renting at Schneider’s boarding house is prostitute Fräulein Kost, and Erin Stoddard does a magical job of singing “Married” in German (it’s always fascinating to remember that the Nazi’s chief female supporter in the musical is a whore).

Leslie Tinarro, Fred Frabotta, Ben Sears & company

Versus the original Cabaret, the Kit Kat Club performers now have been given carte blanche to express their identities in an inferno of music, movement and joy all around the audience (get there early to watch these denizens move about the space, but be forewarned that some playing areas in the audience offer terrible sightlines for viewers). The girls and two boys are a tawdry crew (“Bobby and Victor!” the Emcee announces. “Or is it Victor and Bobby? You know there’s only one way to tell the difference, I’ll show you later”). And with choreographer Karen Sieber‘s intentionally ragtag, far-from-Broadway choreography, adds to the club’s feel as a second-rate locale; the girls can sing, but no one’s trying to make it pretty (even Jimmy Cuomo‘s scenic design seems a little dirty and somewhat cheap, almost like we’re in a warehouse). The best dancemaking is a duo with Howe and Rachel Kay as a Gorilla in “If You Could See Her”.

Cecily Dowd as Sally Bowles, Kit Kat Club Girls and Boys

A five-piece band plays backstage, but the sound came loudly from the speakers near where I sat, so while Joshua Adams‘ sound design had me hearing every word onstage, the band’s sound was distracting and a bit tinny — and there was a slight disconnect between musicians and performers, some of whom rushed through numbers and dialogue (this is the shortest running time at 2 hours and 20 minutes of any Cabaret I’ve seen on stage). Still, Brent Alan Huffman (piano and music director), Dominique Torres (drums), Stephen Hulsey (keyboards), Charlie Viehl (violin, bass keyboard), and David Young (reeds), did a great job.

Cabaret is a rollercoaster of laughs, romance, and two-by-fours to the head, as heavy themes come out time and again, amid people just trying to live their lives in terrible times. As we listen to the undeserving masses boldly declaring in song “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”, it’s hard not to think of hundreds storming the Capitol, believing this outcry. It’s easy to hide in the Kit Kat Klubs of the world where the Emcee tells us — or, rather, warns us — that “Life Is Beautiful!” Cabaret reminds us that no matter how loud the band may play, there’s a stronger drum beat in the distance and we’d better be listening.

photos by David A. Lee

Coachella Valley Repertory
68510 East Palm Canyon Dr in Cathedral City
Wed & Sat at 2 & 7; Thurs & Fri at 7; Sun at 2
ends on February 4, 2024 EXTENDED to February 10, 2024
for tickets ($83 – $87), call 760.296.2966×115 or visit CVRep

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