The “Great War” had ended and Berlin was uncontested as Europe’s nightlife capital, a city of booze and drugs and sex of just about every permutation, that is until Nazism began to cast its dark shadow over the entire continent … and the world exploded.

Director-choreographer Cate Caplin captures Berlin at its most glitzy and at its most grim as Inland Valley Repertory Theatre presents the 1966 Broadway classic Cabaret, its 50th production, a revival sparked by a pair of stellar performances and choreography as imaginative and ably-executed as you’d see in many an Equity production.

IMG_0153 Cabaret’s tale of star-crossed lovers in pre-WWII Berlin was dark stuff indeed for mid-‘60s New York audiences accustomed to considerably brighter shows like Hello Dolly, She Loves Me, and Mame. Still, that first incarnation of Cabaret was positively sunny compared to its 1998 revival and the addition of Kit Kat Boys to the previously all-female entertainers, more than a suggestion of homosexuality stirred into the mix, and the buoyant “Why Should I Wake Up?” and the Yiddish ditty “Meeskite” excised in favor of the considerably darker “Mein Herr,” “Maybe This Time,” and “I Don’t Care Much.”

Director-choreographer Caplin combines key elements of the original Broadway production and its smash hit revival and comes up with a best-of-both-Cabarets sure to please the musical’s many fans while at the same time providing newcomers with a splendid introduction to one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals—over 3800 performances if you combine the original and its two revivals.

As any musical theater aficionado will tell you, Cabaret takes as its source material Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, autobiographical tales which recount the then 20something British medical student’s stay in the sex-and-sin capital of Europe. As Wikipedia relates, “rejecting his upper-class background and attracted to males, (Isherwood) remained in Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, drawn by its deserved reputation for sexual freedom. There, he fully indulged his taste for pretty youths. He went to Berlin in search of boys and found one called Heinz, who became his first great love.”

Clearly, Isherwood’s real-life adventures would have been more than a tad too gay for mid-‘60s Broadway, and even today’s Cabaret centers around its hero Clifford Bradshaw’s very heterosexual love affair with Brit expatriate slash night club entertainer Sally Bowles. Still, this Cliff has a past (as an early phone chat with one-time lover Bobby reveals), and this Berlin is clearly a place where people of just about any orientation could find a way to express their sexuality openly and freely, as director Caplin’s pansexual pairings make abundantly clear.

It’s on a Berlin-bound train that Isherwood’s alter-ego Cliff (Chris Giroux) makes the acquaintance of Ernst Ludwig (Steve Siegel), the jovial Berliner who will introduce him to the city’s nightlife. First, though, Ernst escorts Cliff to the boarding house of Fraulein Schneider (Ann Thomas), whose song “So What” expresses the been-there-done-that Frau’s “What Will Be Will Be” philosophy of life.

IMG_0190 It’s not long before Fraulein Schneider’s digs have morphed into the Kit Kat Club where Sally Bowles (Tomasina Abate) is cautioning club-goers “Don’t Tell Mama,” backed by a sizzling sextet of Kit Kat Girls. Cliff, seated at a table among Kit Kat Club regulars, gets a call at his table phone from Sally, who introduces herself to the handsome American, and before you know it, the “Toast Of Mayfair” has arrived at Cliff’s room, suitcase in hand, and the two expats are shacking up together.

It’s only a matter of time before Cliff and Sally have become lovers, and since we’ve already learned of Cliff’s past dalliance with Kit Kat customer Bobby, this hetero twist in Cliff’s life may even come as a bit of a surprise to our romantic hero.

IMG_0641 As Sally and Cliff become intimately involved, so does Germany’s involvement with Nazism take deeper root, and Cliff begins to have second thoughts about earning extra Deutschemarks as an amateur courier for Ernst. Fraulein Schneider too begins to think twice about marrying her Jewish suitor, greengrocer Herr Schultz (Frank Minano), who had previously won her heart by gifting her with a pineapple (“It Couldn’t Please Me More”). Berlin, which had seemed to Cliff such a perfect antidote to staid old England, now shows itself to be a considerably darker, more dangerous place to live.

With made-up face and elegant tux, handsome triple-threat John LaLonde returns Cabaret’s ubiquitous, all-seeing, all-knowing Emcee to his elegant Joel Grey roots, albeit at a considerably more towering stature than diminutive Tony winner Grey, giving us a Cabaret host who is charismatic, seductive, and creepy all at once. From his trilingual welcome to the Kit Kat entitled “Willkommen,” to the jaunty “Two Ladies,” which has our Emcee cavorting with a pair of pigtailed Kit Kat Girls, to his sexy salute to “Money,” to a leggy “Kick Line” which has an in-drag Emcee anchoring a high-kicking chorus line, to a Marlene Dietrich-esque “I Don’t Care Much,” the oh-so versatile LaLonde can now add a stunning Emcee to his long list of stage credits.

IMG_0199 LaLonde is more than matched by glamorous, raven-haired Abate, making the role of Sally very much her sensational own from the moment she launches into the sauciest, zestiest, most gleeful “Don’t Tell Mama” in memory, followed by a vampy “Mein Heir” which reveals in Sally more than a bit of Velma Kelly, a role which won Abate an Outstanding Lead Actress Scenie a couple years back. Abate belts out a dramatic, poignant “Maybe This Time” with the best of them and sings the title song as a joyous, defiant declaration of sexual independence by a woman who vows that when she goes, though not for long if she can help it, she’s “going like Elsie.” And with Caplin wearing her choreographer’s hat, Abate gives us one of the danciest Sallys ever, legs in constant movement even in a plot-propelling song like “Perfectly Marvelous.”

IMG_0196 Giroux provides fine support as Cliff, less the object of Sally’s true love at IVRT and more a convenient dalliance, though one can’t help wishing that Giroux got to sing at least one of the two songs Kander & Ebb wrote specifically for Cliff, either 1966’s “Why Should I Wake Up?” or even better 1987’s “Don’t Go,” Still, Giroux makes the most of a character who seems to have wandered in from a straight play (no pun intended).

Siegel proves his versatility as he transitions from American tough guy Harry Brock in February’s Born Yesterday to suave Berliner Ernst in this month’s Cabaret. Minano gives Herr Schultz a piquant charm and fine voice in “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married,” while Downy CLO regular Jasso has a the time of her life juggling young man after young man as the frisky Fraulein Kost. Thomas’s Fraulein Schneider, on the other hand, could dig considerably deeper into her character’s pragmatic yet conflicted soul and also exhibit greater mastery of Schneider’s lines, though the musical theater vet does exhibit fine pipes in a dramatic, emotional “What Would You Do?”

IMG_0225 Lindsey Conway, Katie McConaughy, Angelina Mirenda, Brittany Rodin, Katherine Washington, and Sarah Winchester are a dance-tastic bevy of Kit Kat Girls, and never more so than in Caplin’s supremely inventive “Mein Heir,” which has all six of Sally’s backup dancers atop, astride, against, and in just about every other position imaginable vis-à-vis a sextet of straight-back chairs.

Cy Creamer, Jordan Killion, Michael Rodriguez, Jackson Smith, Peter Varvel, and Chantz Ward are a handsome and talented bunch of waiters and customers if ever there was one, while Killion and Jessica Guerrero display exquisite pipes in (respectively) “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” and a German-language “Married.” (The latter song provides one of Caplin’s best-staged sequences, one which has Heir Schultz and Fraulein Schneider sharing the stage with Guerrero’s chanteuse and a pair of wedding day dancers for a remarkably effective tableau.) Mark MacKenzie (Maitre d’) and Robert Meyer complete the cast effectively.

As Cabaret’s mood darkens, director Caplin has menacing, trenchcoat-wearing male figures begin to cast shadows over Berlin, Act One ending chillingly to actual Hitler-inspired cheers and “Heils.” Caplin’s choreography for Cabaret’s grand finale is chilling indeed (despite a couple of jarring ensemble missteps), and the ending she has devised packs as gut-punching a wallop as any I’ve seen.

Musical director Ronda Rubio conducts and plays piano in Cabaret’s terrific onstage band, also featuring David Catalan, Mark McConnell, Takako Nakano, Max O’Leary, Ian Roller, and Jorge Zuniga.

Jenny Senior scores high marks for a great big bunch of colorful, varied costumes which Daniel Moorefield makes even more vivid with his color-saturated lighting design. MacKenzie has skillfully adapted the concurrently-running Sweet Charity set to suit Cabaret’s needs, so much so that we almost believe that the New York skyline peeking over Rubio and her band is Berlin’s in the early 1930s. Cindy Smith’s properties and Cliff Senior’s wigs deserve high marks as well. Only some occasional microphone glitches hampered Nick Galvan’s otherwise excellent sound design. Cabaret Germans’ have been dialect coached by Phil Elhai to varying degrees of authenticity, and in some cases, a bit less heavy an accent might prove more subtly effective and believable.

Terre Gunkel is stage manager. Hope Kaufman is assistant director. Dawnellen Ferry is dance captain.

Performed on the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre stage (with drinks and desserts available rather than the traditional Candlelight dinner), IVRT’s Cabaret seems more like a top-drawer weekend Candlelight offering than a midweek visitor. Whether you’ve seen Cabaret more than half-a-dozen times before, as this reviewer has, or are seeing it for the very first time, this is a “Perfectly Marvelous” revival of a bona fide musical theater classic.

Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.

–Steven Stanley
April 17, 2013
Photos: Mark Riley

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