Two years ago, the Welk Resort Theatre produced a hit staging of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb’s musical, Chicago. So of course it makes total sense that the director/choreographer of that version, Ray Limon, would now tackle one of Kander and Ebb’s other dark classics, Cabaret.
Inspired by the 1998 Broadway revival, which was co-directed by Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes, and featuring songs from the 1972 movie adaptation, the story takes place in 1930s Berlin. Cliff Bradshaw (Eric Hellmers) is a struggling writer who moves to Germany in order to focus on his novel. Shortly thereafter, he visits the sensual nightclub known as the Kit Kat Klub.
Cliff falls for the British performer, Sally Bowles (Ashlee Espinosa). Their relationship progresses so quickly, that Sally moves in with Cliff after getting fired from her job at the club. Unfortunately, as their love affair blossoms, the Nazi party becomes more dangerously influential in Europe.
For a while, Cabaret provides a jolly time at the theatre. Parsons and Espinosa instantly have a humorous rapport with each other and get audience members emotionally invested in their strange romance. “Perfectly Marvelous” is the only number between them, and it displays their chemistry.
There is a sense of discovery in the way Limon explores the different locations in the story that are on Doug Davis’ multifaceted set. He makes the boardinghouse that Cliff lives in seem like a relatively homey environment. This is a drastically different kind of ambience than that of the Kit Kat Klub, which is on the level right above it.
Jennifer Edward’s stylish lighting and Janet Pitcher’s sexy costumes contribute to a deliciously seedy aura. The exotic visuals get theatregoers immediately immersed in the world of Cabaret.
Right off the bat, Jeffrey Scott Parsons warms up the viewers with his high energy as the mischievous host of the evening, the Emcee. Limon’s Bob Fosse-esque choreography along with the ebullience from Parsons and Espinosa makes the club seem like a raunchy dream.
There is a profoundly moving romance between the woman who owns the boarding house, Fraulein Schneider (Susan E.V. Boland), and a Jewish fruit store merchant, Herr Shultz (David Allen Jones). The two actors sing “It Couldn’t Please Me More” with touching candor.
Not too long after their duet is when the mood starts to take a major shift in tone. In spite of the rich notes that tenor Collin McCarthy hits, he disturbs when he sings the uncomfortable Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
Part of the reason the transition in mood works so well is due to Joe Masteroff’s book as well as the musical numbers from Kander and Ebb. Masteroff tackles some pretty heavy material ranging from bisexuality, unplanned pregnancy and prejudice. Since these issues are just as relevant today, his dialogue has not aged at all.
Kander and Ebb’s often ironic songs tend to incorporate black comedy, especially in the tunes“Two Ladies,” “Money” and “If you Could See Her.” The later melodies including “What Would You Do” and “I Don’t Care Much” are much sadder to listen to with an air of melancholy. Even the title tune is sung with increasing anger by Espinosa and is less a showstopper and instead resembles a bitter ballad.
Musical director/keyboardist, Justin Gray, captures the variety of musical stylings with his five-person band. They make the more upbeat show tunes pop, and help turn the “Finale” into a haunting conclusion. [php snippet=1]
Thematically rich and unapologetically harsh, Cabaret is still a shocking testament to a historical period that is not too far removed from the 21st century. Welk Resort Theatre is typically associated with much more lighter fair, so to have an artist like Limon direct several cynical Kander and Ebb pieces in Escondido is a risk that has paid off wonderfully for him and for theatregoers alike.