Review of Cabaret at Washington University

    The production of Cabaret by Washington University’s Performing Arts Department is brilliant in both concept and execution.

    In an astute program note, director Jeffery Matthews expresses both admiration for and reservations about Sam Mendes’ “now famous stripped-down production at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 1993.” The show was further revised for its 1998 New York opening at Studio 54.

    While recognizing the raw power and pervasive influence of Mendes’ “minimalist hellscape,” Matthews argues that a brighter staging is better suited to the razzle-dazzle of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Broadway style and the grand space of Washington U.’s Edison Theatre. Matthews’ results fully justify his strategy.

    The musical numbers are dazzling thanks to the choreography by Erin Morris, the vocal coaching by Kelly Daniel-Decker, the orchestra under musical director Todd Decker, and the performances by entire cast. The show’s feast for the eyes and ears includes splendid technical work by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan, costume designer Dominique Green, lighting designer Seth Kleinberg, projection designers Sean Savoie and Zach Cohn, props designer Emily Frei, sound designer Beef Gratz, and wig designer Blaine Shepherd.

    The scenic design gives the Edison stage a semi-circular extension. Its shape is echoed by a brightly painted arch at the stage’s rear. The nine-member orchestra plays on a platform that is usually behind this arch, but the platform moves forward and back at strategic moments.

    This version of the Kit Kat Klub is far from a seedy little cabaret, but Matthews enlists the Emcee to persuade the audience that the environment onstage transcends the literal. At the outset, the Emcee is in a glittery red tailcoat and a black top hat that make him look like a circus ringmaster whose knowledge and influence extend beyond the cabaret. He knows about the characters outside the club and intrudes on their spaces.

    In keeping with this role, the commanding Matthew Kalmans gives the Emcee an aura of mystery and control. He is not the overwhelmingly sexualized figure of the Donmar Warehouse version, but he is still naughty. Instead of a vest, his first costume includes a bustier.

    John Speas and Danielle Bryden turn in masterly characterizations of the show’s primary romantic couple. Speas is Clifford Bradshaw, the aspiring American novelist who has come to Berlin in search of something to write about after failing elsewhere in Europe. Cliff isn’t sure about his talent or his sexuality. Speas is totally convincing in projecting that uncertainty and in depicting Cliff’s journey to self-realization through his encounters with German politics and an enchanting cabaret singer named Sally Bowles.

    Her journey is the opposite of Cliff’s. Bryden’s compelling rendition of the title song is a microcosm of Sally’s full character arc. At the start of “Cabaret,” her manner is precisely in tune with the live-for-the-moment philosophy of the lyrics. Sally is different, however, after singing the central section about her friend, Elsie, “the happiest corpse I’d ever seen.” There is an increasing disconnect between the words and Sally’s feelings. She is utterly at sea when the song ends, just as she is in life when events challenge the blissful ignorance of her happy-go-lucky existence.

    Maxwell Spinner and Heather Anderson are excellent as the elderly couple, Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. Their romance is heartening when it grows and heartbreaking when it fails after a Nazi friend warns Schneider against marrying a Jew. Spinner’s Schultz is endearingly sweet. Anderson’s exquisitely sung numbers are deeply moving.

    If Schneider reluctantly bends to Nazi influence, the prostitute, Fraulein Kost, embraces it. Her expediency is fully captured by Marielle Hinrichs, whose singing is beautiful.

    Tristan Dumas makes Ernst Ludwig immensely likeable until he shows his true colors. Cade Edney as Max, the club owner, and Matthew Sullivan as the soloist in “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” provide solid support. The fine Kit Kat girls and boys are Jo Palisoc, Anna Zimmermann, Ella Sherlock, Josie Kopff, Paige Samz, Tina Yu, Martin Ibarra, Taylor Miller, and  Aaron Kopelnik.

    Cabaret continues November 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. and November 5 at 2 p.m. at the Edison Theatre in the Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Boulevard.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Jack Rushen Photography
    Front, from the left, Danielle Bryden as Sally Bowles and Matthew Kalmans as the Emcee.