'Cabaret' at the Abbey: a superior staging

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Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret is one of those classics of the musical theater canon that has grown so familiar (via both Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning 1972 film with Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli and multiple Sam Mendes-helmed revivals starring Alan Cumming) that you forget how powerful the show can be. That is, until a superior staging, like Gen Y Productions’ at the Abbey under director Kenny Howard, comes along to remind you. Howard has populated his decadent Kit Kat Klub with a who’s who of Orlando talent, with Blue Star topping the bill as Sally Bowles, a coked-up chanteuse who fiddle-dee-dees while Fascist flames begin to burn Weimar-era Berlin. She latches onto Clifford Bradshaw (Rob Stack, surprisingly textured in an unflashy role), a wide-eyed American novelist wandering Europe in search of a subject, and attempts to relieve his writer’s block and bisexuality with a steady diet of gin and sex. While they party, the Nazi scourge – represented by the smiling smuggler Ernst Ludwig (Alexander Mrazek) and Fräulein Kost (Natalie Doliner), a hooker with a heart of lead – sneaks up to make their hedonistic lifestyle extinct.

Cabaret isn’t a perfect show, and this production has some problems, but in ways I enjoyed it as much as (or maybe more than) Mendes’ Studio 54 version, which I saw in 2000 with Susan Egan as Sally and Michael C. Hall as the club’s infamous emcee. Here, Griffeth Whitehurst plays the Emcee with a similarly intense mix of vampiric sensuality and demonic menace; it’s one of many stylistic elements (including Kyla Swanberg’s superbly scandalous costumes) obviously inspired by that Broadway revival, but made even more effective by the venue’s intimacy. This show’s other strongest asset is the subplot that’s practically the lead story, as Fräulein Schneider (Rebecca Fisher) and Herr Schultz (Doug Ba’aser) struggle with love in the face of anti-Semitism. Fisher seems too youthful for the role, but her impassioned singing and tender chemistry with Ba’aser nearly brought me to tears.

Tight transitions help the overlong first act keep moving (though the shorter second act seemed clunkier), and highlight thematic connections between Joe Masteroff’s book scenes and the burlesque-style musical numbers (choreographed by Blue and featuring her Varietease cohorts Tymisha Harris and Megan Boetto, along with Lauren Culver and Lola Selsky), which make full use of the Abbey’s slender stage. Musical director John DeHaas’ quartet crackles, and didn’t overwhelm the vocalists for once, but opening night saw a number of distracting light and sound issues. Still, they didn’t dampen the dramatic effect of Blue’s deeply affecting rendition of the title track (the first time I’ve seen an actress weep through that song), nor the devastating impact of the stark finale. “Don’t Tell Mama,” but “It Couldn’t Please Me More” than to direct you toward this “Perfectly Marvelous” production. 

8 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday (preshow begins at 6 p.m.); the Abbey, 100 S. Eola; 407-704-6261; abbeyorlando.com; $40-$90


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