Sunday, November 6, 2016

'Cabaret' extends its sardonic welcome in ATI production

One advantage of seeing lots of plays new to me is that it checks the temptation to sift among plays I know and come up with ideal casts in my mind from among actors whose work I admire.

Apart from concocting such a cast for Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" several years ago for an Indiana Repertory Theatre production of my dreams, I've resisted going into the fantasy-football mode — it feels somehow arrogant and manipulative, even though no one is harmed by the game.

On the other hand, looking at the announced cast for a play I know, it's exciting to discover an actor has been cast who seems perfect for a role. Thus I was sure Actors Theatre of Indiana's production of "Cabaret" was an immediate must-see because the Emcee would be Ben Asaykwee. A fantasy I hadn't thought of would meet reality. It turned out the real thing surpassed the fantasy.

This was ATI's second performance Saturday night in the Studio Theater of Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts. Of course, it was crucial that this Emcee be significantly removed from memories of Joel Grey in the movie. The challenge is how much room to maneuver there can be within a role that is largely caricature or, at best, symbolic of the Nazi threat to the late Weimar Republic circa 1930. The role can't be easy, but it seems it might feel confining.

Directed by Billy Kimmel, Asaykwee and the cast met that challenge handsomely. I emphasize the cast at this point because a striking, vivid Emcee can't really carry "Cabaret," even with an outstanding, energetic Sally Bowles, which this production has in ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins. What works is an Emcee who's striking and mesmerizing on his own, but also helps ground the show's context.

That context, which is well-supported throughout the production, was also an achievement of Asaykwee's performance Saturday night. His sinuous athleticism, Eddie Cantor "banjo eyes," gestural imagination, a singing and speaking voice with a virtuoso range of expression — all these qualities and more were given focus and import by this production's sights and sounds. The small band, behind slidable screens, serves both as Kit Kat Klub house band and nearby accompaniment to songs set in other places. Coordination with singers and dancers, by music director John D. Phillips, was nearly flawless.

One of the few still moments in the raunchy trio, "Two Ladies," with the Emcee in the middle.
In all events, escape from the iconic Grey performance, which was more elfin and a little less sardonic than Asaykwee's, was complete. Furthermore, I didn't have to worry about a Sally Bowles who would be other than Liza Minnelli in the movie.

Attractive as her performance was on its own terms, Minnelli's seemed to draw its depth from the narrow channel of kookiness that she also mastered in "The Sterile Cuckoo." For all her star quality, this actress-singer (a favorite of CPA artistic director Michael Feinstein) seems like a set of Russian nesting dolls: Inside the outer Liza is nestled a succession of progressively smaller Lizas.

Cliff and Sally consider Ernst's proposal of a way for Cliff to earn money.
Cynthia Collins, by way of contrast, displayed a depth that didn't rely on multiple ways of being kooky, including the pathetic. Sally's liveliness and insouciance, her deep-rooted amorality, bumped up convincingly against the social and political threat to her cozy world of low entertainment and casual liaisons. These were brought home to her convincingly by Eric J. Olson as Cliff Bradshaw, the struggling American novelist who shifts from casual lover to would-be rescuer. There were genuine sparks in the Sally-Cliff relationship in this performance, and that connection brings with it the larger menace that drives the plot home on a personal level.

Carol Worcel's choreography was crisply executed, with humor complementing Fred Ebb's lyrics, in back-to-back songs (with always idiomatic melodies by John Kander) for Sally Bowles and the Kit Kat girls: "Don't Tell Mama" and "Mein Herr."  With the Emcee interacting with the same saucy ladies, "Money" was one of the most memorable songs, and emblematic of the Brechtian cynicism the show apes quite well.

Actors in supporting roles gave additional substance to a story so searing that it never gets buried by spectacular song and dance. There's Patrick Vaughn as the Nazi agent Ernst Ludwig, convinced of his cause and shrewd in manipulating the people who can be useful to him; and Judy Fitzgerald as the woman of easy virtue who is among Fraulein Schneider's tenants in the building where Cliff has found lodgings for himself, later to include Sally.

The simpatico landlady is as symbolic of what ordinary Germans had to put up with in the first few decades of the last century as the Emcee is in his practice of shrugging it all off. She was warmly played by Debra Babich, with Darrin Murrell as her ardent fiance Herr Schultz. Their duet "Married" offered praise as poignant of the domestic stability they will never find as the heart-tugging soliloquy "Maybe This Time" expressed Sally's lack of preparation for such a life.

In the world of "Cabaret," the prospect of lasting peace is far out of reach for everyone. Some know it, some merely suspect it, and some will have it visited starkly upon their minds and bodies.

[Photos by Kip Shawger]