This season’s blockbuster musical at the Shaw Festival most certainly looks better than it sounds and feels.
Director Peter Hinton has taken an almost comic-book-mixed-with-soap-opera approach and crafted a production that doesn’t drill down deep enough into the ominous subtext that the original material exudes so intriguingly just below the surface.
Perhaps the most disconcerting decision from the artistic trust (the spectacular, gleaming, circular rotating set from Michael Gianfrancesco—not a stretch to see it as Gotham City—is virtually overwhelmed by such a long dose of a blood-red backdrop framing the Nazi’s symbol of superiority; Judith Bowden expertly draping the cast in era-true costumes) was the makeup (white face; spiked hair) and costuming (largely dark, but with a fabric-rich, loose neck tie against the tuxedo shirt) which, combined, produced the “look” of Emcee. Rather than appearing to be the anything goes host of the famed, morals-lite Kit Kat Club, it seemed the catalytic character from the vivid imaginations of Christopher Isherwood (stories), John van Druten (play) and Joe Masteroff’s book was none other than The Joker straight off the latest Batman soundstage. How fortunate, however, to have Juan Chioran in the pivotal role, with the most consistent voice of the troupe (“Willkommen” had just the right nuance; “I Don’t Care Much” was a vrai showstopper). The superhero villain effect is so strong that when it came time to beat up Cliff Bradshaw (alas Gray Powell’s vocal chops come nowhere near his acting skills) the eye was expecting a few “Pows!” to magically appear in sound effects balloons just above the punches and kicks of the thugs—deliberately having all of these miss their targets only reinforced the DC Comics, most likely unintended, links.
The other costuming puzzle was unexpectedly in the pit. How very curious and unsettling to see music director Paul Sportelli decked out in a black bowler chapeau, white gloves and what appeared to be a thin-strap tank top. Despite the usual balance and pinpoint staging problems that reinforced sound always provides (the on-stage accordion was a brief, welcome relief), Sportelli unleashed one of his best performances ever, yet looked as if he hadn’t time to change from auditioning for a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition prior to the downbeat.
What a pleasure to have Deborah Hay back in the limelight, this time playing the gin swigging, blind-to-reality Sally Bowles. Inevitably in the shadow of Liza Minnelli’s iconic screen version (cross-reference below), Hay utilized her comic strengths and emotional range to draw the audience into every utterance and move—with a few more performances of this taxing role behind her, the upper range in her key song (“Cabaret”) will most likely become more secure.
After seeing last season’s Stratford Festival production of Fiddler on the Roof (cross-reference below), there was a wonderful connection between Jerry Bock’s always moving “Anatevka” and John Kander’s also poignant “I Don’t Care Much.” Both triple-metre numbers offer their respective production’s subtle comments—with the shared lyric, “much”—on the result of calamity for those who have been deemed unworthy to continue the voyage. And in many ways the melodies and harmonies bear more than a passing resemblance. Also feeling “Fiddler-like” was the just preceding “What Would You Do?” Corrine Kelso as Fräulein Schneider did her level best with the song, but couldn’t quite manage the vocal challenges required to etch the music and lyrics into long-term memory.
The decision was also made to have the entire cast utilize a German accent for the largely English dialogue. But with a few “w” as “v” transformations missed (Benedict Campbell as the naïve Jew, Herr Schultz being one example), the suspension of disbelief was lost.
Denise Clarke’s choreography was most appropriately conservative, producing many energizing, fun turns in and around the soaring tower of decadence that was a model of form and function (a few nods to gender-blind cross-dressing were most welcome; the group smoke was an imaginative bit of business), yet the heady excitement of an ensemble number that should have left the capacity house cheering in the aisles must await the budget-challenging inclusion of “too damn hot” dancers in future productions.
All of those elements combined to leave seasoned viewers feeling more entertained than enlightened about the perils of “life is beautiful” trumping those who are dead set on improving the world at any cost. JWR