A Dark and Decadent
At The Ogunquit Playhouse
Through August 10
The Ogunquit Playhouse
Directed By BT McNicholl
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
When you enter the theatre for the production of Cabaret now playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse, the curtain is already up and some of the cast are on stage slinking about and interacting with the audience. You have not only arrived at your seat, you are now in the Kit Kat Club where much of the story unfolds.
I have seen a number of productions of Cabaret over the years, and they keep getting darker and rawer. This is not to say the original was an uplifting story. It is, after all, set in Berlin in the early 1930s at the time the Nazis were gaining power and much was changing. None of it for the better.
The play, with music by John Kander and Fred Ebb, is based on the story I Am A Camera which was included in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Diaries. Many musicals, while still very enjoyable, become dated. This is not true with Cabaret. The story set against the backdrop of extremists gaining control of government while using fear and hatred to stir up support is as relevant today as ever. In a time when we are seeing politicians from both sides of the political spectrum spouting hate and instilling fear in people, it makes seeing a work such as Cabaret even more important to serve as a reminder of just how far out of hand this rhetoric can lead. Politicians from both major parties have become comfortable spewing repellent bigotries such as anti Semitism and hatred of immigrants. Class warfare is also on the rise, with people being told there is always someone else to blame for their troubles.
“Even the orchestra is beautiful”
Overall, the Cabaret I saw the other night in Ogunquit was excellent. The 14 piece orchestra led by Bruce Barnes that was onstage throughout the performance lived up to line in the opening number “Even the orchestra is beautiful”.
Randy Harrison as the Emcee puts his own interpretation on the role and was entrancing and disturbing. As the symbol of the decay and sickness that was engulfing the Weimar Republic, he haunted the stage throughout the evening. As soon as he opens with Willkommen, it is clear his will be an incredible performance, and it is.
Randy Harrison deserves high praise for his bravura performance.
Mr. Harrison, joined by a member of the cast dressed as a gorilla in If You Could See Her, has the audience smiling at first, but when he sings the final ugly line of the song it feels like a punch to the stomach. He is also superb on the decadent Two Ladies, as well as Money, and the ominous I Don’t Care Much. Randy Harrison deserves high praise for his bravura performance.
The legendary Mariette Hartley plays Fraulein Schneider, the proprietor of a rooming house who is trying to survive amid the rampant inflation of the time. Ms Hartley’s presence on the stage is striking. She does fall just a bit behind on some of her lines, but when she sings What Would You Do? in Act II, she so captures the struggle of choosing between principle and survival that it forces audience members to grapple with that question. By the time she is done, you understand why she has endured as a star for over fifty years.
Broadway veteran John Rubinstein plays Herr Shultz, the owner of a fruit store, who is Jewish and believes the Nazi movement will pass. He is quite taken with Fraulien Schneider. To show his affection he brings her a pineapple and they sing It Couldn’t Please Me More while pineapple lanterns descend from above the stage.
When he proposes marriage to Fraulein Schneider, he sings Married where he explains to the skeptical Schneider “the world can change, it can change like that, due to one little word, married…”. An absolutely amazing performance is given by Katrina Yaukey who sings Married in German from above the stage while standing behind a frame hanging at an angle. Her voice is beautiful and reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich as it carries over the couple while they are dancing. I was very taken with Ms Yaukey’s performance.
Closing out Act I is the rousing and chilling Tomorrow Belongs To Me. What has always fascinated me about this song is how moving it is until you realize what it foretells. It is with songs like this that Kander and Ebb let you know how easy it is to get caught up in the emotion of a political movement. It begins with a promise of hope and revival, but by its conclusion you feel the hate.
I have left the roles of Sally Bowles (Kate Shindle) and Cifford Bradshaw (Billy Harrigan Tighe) for last. While both were adequate, they lacked the emotional synergy to really make the impact that was needed. Ms Shindle, while hitting all the right notes and lines, but was just not convincing. Mr. Tighe also did not seem fully engaged in his role as Cliff. Neither is awful, they just were a bit flat .
Despite this weakness, it is still a solid and emotionally jarring production. It’s a bit different than the usual Ogunquit Playhouse musicals in that it is not a toe tapping musical comedy. However, even with the play’s darkness, the music is beautiful and powerful. Along with fine choreography and its magnificent staging it serves as a reminder that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. The final scene is something you will not forget. It is disturbing and ugly and a reminder of what hate can motivate people to do.
I have seen four previous productions of Cabaret including one with Mariette Hartley in 2003, and the 1987 revival with Joel Grey. I have pointed out some weak points, but this may have been the best I have seen. In fact, I might see it again before it closes. I highly recommend it. Cabaret at the Ogunquit Playhouse should not be missed.