The Onyx Theatre’s underground atmosphere should provide the perfect setting for a musical about moral decay, but this production of “Cabaret” directed by Brandon Burk for Off-Strip Productions lacks luster. The scenes are disjointed, and the pacing is slow.
The Onyx production is apparently based on revivals of the musical that include some numbers introduced by the 1972 film and cut some of the original show’s favorite numbers including “Telephone Song” and “Don’t Tell Mama,” depleting the show’s energy.
The cabaret in the play is the Kit Kat Klub, which serves as a metaphor for the decadent society of early 1930s Germany and should have the off-color energy of an “Absinthe” shadowed by the growing tension of the rise of Nazism. But this production’s demimonde only play-acted at debauchery.
Olivia Hernando’s choreography added to the show’s sense of enervation. Aiming for tawdriness, the dance numbers were unexciting. Some numbers were performed at floor level, which given the sightline limitations of the Onyx meant that the numbers weren’t seen past the first row.
Kirstin Maki as Sally Bowles lacked the desperate energy of a girl who claims to have slept her way across Europe. Certainly we learn that this 19-year old English girl is a poseur and not half as dissolute as she pretends — but nonetheless she should put on a pretense. While she looks perfect in the role, she fails to inhabit it until the very end when she sings “Cabaret” as a disillusioned woman.
Cory Goble is wooden as Sally’s romantic lead, the struggling American writer Clifford Bradshaw. He is unconvincing as the play’s moral voice, and one half believes Nazi Ernst Ludwig’s gibe that he simply doesn’t understand German politics. Brian Scott is assured in the role of Ernst.
Indeed, Cliff’s American moral outrage at the charming Ernst seems unmotivated because Burk does not establish the chilling undertone of Ernst’s Nazi anti-Semitism that is essential to the growing tension.
Likewise, the petty treachery of Fraulein Kost as a budding Nazi informant — ably played by Autumn Grace Johnson — is almost lost amidst the bedroom farce of her liaisons with her sailor “nephews,” although her true colors shine through in a reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Here Burk masterfully implicates the audience when we are enticed to sing along with the growing Nazi chorus.
The play’s subplot of the doomed romance between the “good” German landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and the Jewish fruit vendor, Herr Schultz, puts a personal face on the growing terror of Nazism. But while Joy Demain is lovely in the role of Fraulein Schneider, she is too big-hearted for us to believe in her cynical choice of political practicalities over love. She should allow herself to be less likable than she is.
“Meeskite,” the number that would help to undermine Herr Schultz’s tragic delusion that he is as German as anyone else, was cut, otherwise Lou de Meis is moving as Herr Schultz.
Burk’s nontraditional casting of John Dorsey as the enigmatic Master of Ceremonies proved just right.
Dorsey wears the sinister smiling mask of a Greek chorus (emphasized by the white face he dons in the second act), and his cabaret performances subtly comment upon the realpolitik compromises of the other characters. His final transition from cabaret to concentration camp is brilliant.
Mike Olsen and David Sankuer’s set design was uninspired, but Isaias Hiram Urrabazo’s stunning costume designs provided ample eye candy. The sleazy Kit Kat Klub Band under the direction of Karalyn Clark was effectively claptrap.
Burk’s use of wholesome boy soprano Joshua Smithline to sing the Nazi volk anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” shadowed by a Nazi soldier was a chilling reminder of the danger of moral indifference amidst the rise of a Moral Right.