By Colin Douglas
A drum roll and a cymbal crash announce the smirking face of the Emcee, peaking from behind the curtain. Without relying on the traditional whiteface makeup, Sean Fortunato, cloaked in a tail coat and combat boots, leers from his spotlight bidding the audience “Willkommen,” and setting the tone for what’s to come.
Cabaret, the Tony Award-winning Kander and Ebb musical, with a libretto by Joe Masteroff, is based upon John Van Druten’s play “I am a Camera,” which was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin. It’s set in and around the city’s seedy 1931 Kit Kat Klub, and it’s within this venue that the musical both begins and ends.
Into this world arrives handsome, somewhat naive, would-be author, Clifford Bradshaw, played to perfection by Patrick Tierney in the current production at Munster’s Theatre at the Center. He’s traveling to Weimar Germany seeking creative inspiration for his second novel. On his first night in Berlin he meets his charming landlady, Fraulein Schneider, a role impeccably portrayed by Iris Lieberman; her Jewish gentleman friend, produce merchant Herr Schultz, played with honest authenticity by Craig Spidle.
On New Years Eve, he makes his way to the Klub, where he becomes acquainted with their flamboyant English headliner, Sally Bowles. She’s a sassy, independent young woman who’ll forever change the young American’s life. Sally’s portrayed with passion and power by the incomparable, four-time Jeff Award-winner, Danni Smith. But, as the Nazi party becomes more powerful and dangerous, the decadent party that is pre-WWII Berlin soon comes to an end.
Director/Choreographer Linda Fortunato (also TATC’s artistic director) has staged and choreographed with her Indiana audience in mind. This production is the more recent version of the script, but offers a respectful nod to the much tamer original 1966 script. The 1998 Broadway revival eliminates several songs from the original version, while incorporating others from the popular 1972 Liza Minnelli film. It was originally presented at Studio 54 in a grittier and more sexually shocking production.
This show differs from the more traditional in that most of the musical numbers, both performed within and outside of the nightclub, are commented on in some way by the Emcee and the ensemble. Linda Fortunato’s production continues this tradition. It’s flawlessly sung, athletically danced, competently acted and visually perfect; but she’s made sure that there’s very little that will offend her more sensitive audience members.
Several of the supporting characters are memorable, as played by a company of superlative actor/singers. Spicy, seductive Fraulein Kost, a fellow boarder at the rooming house where Clifford Bradshaw lives, is a woman who works nights and requires a new mattress before the other residents. She’s played by an exciting newcomer to Chicago theatre named Casiena Raether. This comely, talented actress is someone to watch.
As Ernst, the kind, somewhat mysterious young German who Clifford meets on the train to Berlin, Christopher Davis is terrific. Seen all over Chicago, Davis possesses a strong singing voice and a powerful presence. Here he impresses in his dramatic journey from innocent English student to potent political villain. And young triple-threat Adam Fane, who’s made a strong name for himself all over the Windy City, not only dazzles here as Bobby, a sensuous Kit Kat Klub dancer, but he delivers a perfect and melodic solo rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
One of the best elements in any production of this musical is the “beautiful” onstage orchestra. Traditionally costumed to blend in with the company, they’re often in full view of the audience. In this production, however, William Underwood’s gifted musicians, dressed all in black, are hidden away behind Jack Magaw’s giant lit letters that spell out the show’s title. It’s a curious choice. Magaw’s scenic design does allow for some impressively seamless set changes, choreographed by Linda Fortunato. Brenda Winstead’s costumes look authentic, except for a few of Sally’s earlier frocks; however, her slinky black sequined gown worn for the title song is spot-on, as are Fraulein Kost’s kimono and lingerie ensembles.
Linda Fortunato does Isherwood proud, while always keeping her target audience in mind. She’s presenting this Kander and Ebb classic respectfully, much in the manner that it was originally written, without offering any new or shocking twists. Even the finale, which usually leaves more sensitive theatergoers aghast, is underplayed here, with just a hint of horror that will eventually befall most of the characters.
With Smith, Sean Fortunato, Tierney, Lieberman and Spidle leading the way, this TATC production is both “Perfectly Marvelous” and “Sitting Pretty.”
Theatre at the Center presents “Cabaret” through June 4 at 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, IN. More information and tickets are available here. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas may be read at theatreinchicago.com.