Blank Canvas delivers an entertaining but off-balanced ‘Cabaret’
By Bob Abelman
While theatrical journeys back to the burgeoning Nazi movement of 1930 Germany are meant to be disturbing, Joe Masteroff’s “Cabaret” – with gorgeous music by John Kander and poignant lyrics by Fred Ebb – manages to be enthralling and entertaining as well.
Blank Canvas Theatre’s production, under Patrick Ciamacco, is most certainly entertaining, but some conceptual and casting missteps keep it from scoring many points as an enthralling production.
The original 1966 Broadway premiere of “Cabaret,” as well as the 1977 film and 1987 revival, sought their creative inspiration from the artwork of period expressionist and social critic George Grosz. His paintings captured the vulgarities of the time by depicting everyday Germans in garish colors, awash in grotesque shadowing, and wearing faces void of emotion.
The 1998 and 2014 revivals chose a more intimate and minimalistic approach to the work that emphasized the uninhibited hedonism and sexual decadence of the Weimar Republic through the stark realism of its storytelling. As does this Blank Canvas production.
Most of the play takes place in Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub, where emotionally damaged cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Tricia Bestic) and naïve American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Noah Hrbek) fall in love, oblivious to the invading atrocities that will – by show’s end – take over Europe. The Klub is just a bare stage with a round, raised platform in the middle and a single flight of stairs leading to an upper level that houses the talented brass section of a jazzy on-stage octet (conducted by Matthew Dolan).
Taking place on this stage is Katie Zarecki’s wonderfully naughty choreography well executed by the half-naked and highly flexible Kit Kat Klub girls (Madeline Krucek, Tasha Brandt, Kenzie Britzer, Leslie Andres, Kimberly Eskut and Sarah Menser) and boys (David Turner, Michael Krobloch, Daryl Kelly and Evan Martin).
In between production numbers like “Willkommen” and novelty numbers like “Three Ladies,” we find landlady Fraulein Schneider (Bernadette Hisey) finding forbidden love with Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz (John J. Polk), as well as the hard-hearted prostitute Fraulein Kost (Kimberly Eskut) and Cliff’s new friend Ernest Ludwig (Stuart Hoffman) giving voice to their political leanings.
All of which is orchestrated by the show’s master of ceremonies (Devon Turchan), who serves as a metaphor for the seductive powers of fascism and the tenuous and threatening state of Germany.
Where this production goes slightly awry begins with the band. Though center stage, omnipresent and introduced by the Emcee as the Kit Kat Klub Orchestra, the musicians are not dressed in character or as members of the 1930s world that surrounds them by costumer Luke Scattergood. This is an unnecessary distraction that keeps the audience from being completely emerged in this production, which is important for this play.
While Turchan is a delight as the simultaneously alluring and repellent Emcee, his character never morphs from being sinister and androgynous to ominous. As a result, the big reveal that ends the play – which usually has the emcee removing his overcoat to expose a POW uniform but, here, exposes something different to the audience – seems without motivation. Blank Canvas is known for making bold choices, but this one is a less powerful one.
The wonderful Bestic as the frighteningly lost and self-destructive Sally also does not evolve throughout the course of the play, so her stoic “Maybe This Time” early in Act 1 and the striking heartbreak she displays while singing the title song “Cabaret” at the end of Act 2 follows no discernable dramatic arch. This may be due to her having to play opposite Hrbek, whose Cliff is astoundingly flat and gives her little to work with.
Add to the mix several opening night fauxpas, including Cory Molner’s lighting design that keeps missing its mark, an ensemble that cannot find the correct choreography to start the second act, and German accents that come and go as they please.
Fortunately, all this is counterbalanced by absolutely endearing performances by Hisey as Fraulein Schneider and Polk as Herr Schultz, which includes their charming duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More.” While minor players in the film, these characters are featured here and these two performers make the most of their opportunities.
“Cabaret” is a great musical with remarkable bones. All that makes it so is still on display in this Blank Canvas production.
WHERE: Blank Canvas Theatre, 1305 W. 78th St., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Dec. 18
TICKETS & INFO: $18, call 440-941-0458 or visit blankcanvastheatre.com
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Dec. 3, 2016.
Lead image: Devon Turchan as the Emcee, center, surrounded by the Kit Kat Klub girls and boys. Photo | Andy Dudik