By Bill Beard
You can still catch Timber Lake’s newest “hot” musical, Cabaret, through this Sunday, Aug. 12. If you have not been out to this charming “theater in the woods,” it’s time you go! And certainly, if you’ve never seen this musical, it is absolutely time to go! But please, do not expect the 1972 Liza Minnelli film. This stage version, which hit Broadway in 1966, presents somewhat different vibes, and has gone through several revivals and revisions, both in New York and London. I was lucky enough to see the 1993 revival in London, re-conceived by Sam Mendes and starring Alan Cummings (currently playing Eli Gold on The Good Wife).
Set in 1931, in the middle of the decadence of pre-war Berlin, as the Nazi Party is just beginning to take over Germany, Cabaret is based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and John Van Druten’s play, I Am A Camera. The plot centers on a young British cabaret singer, Sally Bowles, who is the featured performer at the very seedy Kit Kat Klub and is desperately trying to cope with the uncertainties of her life. She becomes involved with a young American writer who is seeking inspiration for a new novel. The theme explores the sexual decadence of this society in the midst of the ominous rise of the Third Reich.
Overseeing the action is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, known as “Emcee”; and although Sally Bowles is the central figure in the overall plot, it is the Emcee whose persona and routine provide the setting in which the social and political commentary and themes can be presented. As the evening progresses, that distinctive cabaret song and dance style becomes more and more insinuative and menacing, paralleling the growing menace of Nazism.
Timber Lake’s overall production is good, with a talented cast; and the director, Lili-Anne Brown, well remembered from previous guest direction on Sweet Charity and Spelling Bee, has a definite “take” on the show, a conceptual statement she wants to make. Now, Cabaret has always required an edgy style, an open, daring frankness, a limit-pushing asperity. Ms. Brown goes that far, and somewhat further. Assuming that costumes, makeup, wigs, etc., are a part of her concept, she seems to push this show just a bit over the limit. It appears she has relied heavily on the 1993 Mendes interpretation, which was more openly sexual and sensational; and it still goes somewhat over the top.
Par example, the Kit Kat Girls are visually caricatured; wigs, makeup, costumes almost cartoonish. And the Emcee, here played by Joe Capstick of Southeast Missouri State University, is equally extreme in his character, far more Alan Cummings than Joel Grey; although his interpretation worked much of the time, except for vocal delivery (The Emcee need not have a gorgeous voice, but his articulation must be precise, in all three languages).
Let me hasten to add that the Kit Kat Klub dance numbers were excellent. Andrew Parker Greenwood’s choreography was precisely on target, re-creating the original style with just the right touch, consistently thoughout the production.
Kudos also to the marvelous Judy Knudtson as Frau Schneider and Chicago’s Rus Rainear as Herr Schultz, who supply the beautifully-nuanced sub-plot. Both of these fine actors were flawless. Dryden Meints as Cliff and Andrew Way as Ernst were solid (although we would love to have heard more of Meints’ beautiful voice). Analisha Santini was brazenly candid in her portrayal of Fraulein Kost, and firm and full-throated in her singing of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
Alexandra E. Palkovic is perfect casting for Sally Bowles. Last year, I raved about her portrayal of Sweet Charity. I’m sure by now, her Sally is brilliant. But on opening night, although her Sally had all the zaniness, the “Let’s pretend we’re all having a ball!” shallowness, the determination to appear decadent, all the fun façade she needed, yet it was not until the very last verse of “Cabaret” that she let us see and feel the inner desperation, the angst, the fear inside, which makes Sally Bowles the tragic figure she really is. But that desperation should be there, underneath, hiding beneath the zany pretense, all the time. Ms. Palkovic did give us a glimpse of that Sally when she sang “Maybe This Time” in Act I. But I loved the Sally we saw after that last “When I Go, I’m Goin’ Like Elsie.”
But this is a performer whose name you will see often. She is becoming a favorite in the Chicago theater scene, and will be much in demand.
Again, Cabaret is a great script and score, Kander and Ebb’s music and lyrics are wonderful. The Timber Lake Playhouse production plays through this Sunday, Aug. 12. Call (815) 244-2035 for information.
From the Aug. 8-14, 2012, issue