Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of “Cabaret,” directed by Scott LaFeber and running through July 21, is entertaining, handsomely rendered, and smoothly paced. And that is why this version of the classic musical doesn’t quite succeed. “Cabaret” requires visible seediness and a tattered, frantic gaiety that puts us on edge until it shades into menace, desperation, and tragedy. We should leave the theater shattered, but in this case, we leave puzzling over LaFeber’s choices.
“Cabaret” takes place in the Berlin of the very early 1930s, and Kander and Ebb use the song styles of the nightclubs that were wildly popular at the time to tell the story of characters caught up in the rise of the Nazi Party. Clifford Bradshaw (the fictional stand-in for Christopher Isherwood, on whose Berlin Stories “Cabaret” is based), an American writer, arrives in Berlin hoping to finish his novel. Instead, he becomes enamored of the magnetic, naïve, sexually casual yet childish Sally Bowles, an English singer at the Kit Kat Klub. As he learns more about growing anti-Semitism by observing the sweet love affair between his elderly landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and another tenant, the German-Jew Herr Schultz, he comes to realize that if he and Sally are to have any kind of life together, they must leave before Germany is engulfed in the approaching hell.
Forrest McClendon plays the Emcee, our host at the Kit Kat Klub and our guide through what should feel like the riotous, sexually decadent, and ever more threatening zeitgeist of Weimar Germany. Unfortunately, in this production, that zeitgeist is subdued, and it seems that McClendon was directed to be polished and entertaining (there’s that word again) but given very little encouragement to explore the emotional depth and darkness of a role that should simultaneously fascinate and disturb. This is especially clear in his only true solo number, “I Don’t Care Much,” in which he arrives onstage in a plain white button down shirt and dark pants, and during the course of the song simply unbuttons his shirt and takes it off, revealing—so unfortunately—all the microphone wiring down his back. The song is a yearning yet unsettling ballad, yet here, despite McClendon’s superb singing voice, it’s unclear what the Emcee is feeling.
CRT has chosen to stage the 1998 version of “Cabaret,” in which the Emcee’s sexuality is especially emphasized as both humorous and threatening: the character should exude a fluidity of gender and desire, with eroticism permeating every move. Instead, McClendon comes across as a decidedly masculine and heterosexual showman, despite black lipstick and curly lashes. I’m guessing that McClendon could be a terrific Emcee if he were directed differently; I hope he has another chance at the role.
Laura Michelle Kelly is not an ideal Sally Bowles—she is older than the character should be and her singing is far too magnificent for a low-class club (where, the script tells us, Sally has only been hired because she sleeps with the manager). However, Kelly is such a gifted actor that she convincingly gets at the heart of the character. Her Sally—in addition to being truly English, which is wonderful to hear and watch—is the kind of woman who, no matter her age, retains the youthful determination to remake the world as she wishes and ignore everything that doesn’t fit her dreams. And Kelly is remarkably charismatic: songs like “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Perfectly Marvelous” are a delight, and her more sober moments are moving and believable. Sadly, the only number that doesn’t hit home is “Cabaret.” Coming, as it does, at the end of the show, when the horrors of Nazi Germany have all but been revealed, this titular number should be sung as a painfully desperate attempt to hang onto a fantasy of fun. The truth of the song is right in the lyrics (“Start by admitting/ from cradle to tomb/isn’t that long a stay”). LaFeber might have helped Kelly sing with either anguish or mania—the song has been presented effectively both ways. I’m certain Kelly can do anything.
Dee Hoty, as Fraulien Schneider, resists all temptations to soften her character while still giving Fraulien Schneider all the humor, sweetness, and delicacy that Masteroff, Kander, and Ebb intend in songs like “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and in her courtship scenes with Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody, who could be more tender and vulnerable than he is directed to be here). This makes the sorrow she endures even more poignant and painful. It’s a masterful performance.
CRT is to be commended for combining Equity professionals, such as McClendon, Kelly, Hoty, and Brody, with non-Equity actors and students in its MFA Acting program. At times, here, the casting of young people works well: Aidan Marchetti, a graduate of UConn, is a fine, strong Ernst Ludwig, and Leslie Blake Walker, a graduate of the Hartt School with a BFA in Musical Theatre, makes a sparkling and ultimately chilling Fraulein Kost.
Unfortunately, Rob Barnes—who has done very good work in previous CRT productions—cannot persuade as Cliff, partly because his youth makes it impossible to believe him as this Sally’s lover; partly because, though this script makes his bisexuality clear, he has not been helped to bring out that aspect of the role; and partly because LaFeber hasn’t guided him to find the force that this quiet but resolute character requires. However, his performance is sincere, and therefore moving.
The members of the ensemble, both men and women, perform the marvelous choreography of Christopher d’Amboise with gusto: the decadence and danger of this production, though “Cabaret” needs much more of both, is mainly found here.
“Cabaret” is playing through July 21st in Storrs, CT.