On Thursday, August 11, The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre opened their 2016-2017 season with “Cabaret” co-directed by Jeffrey Ellis and Jamie London, with musical direction by Ginger Newman. Set in Berlin in the early 1930s, with book by Joe Masteroff and music and lyrics by legendary Broadway duo John Kander and Fred Ebb, “Cabaret” successfully blends what seems at first like your typical boy meets girl scenario with much more serious, and surprisingly still-relevant themes of the ever-lurking evils of prejudice and a political system filled with corruption and hate.
When “Cabaret” debuted on Broadway in 1966, Joel Grey won the Tony Award for his portrayal of The Emcee at the Kit Kat Klub, the German nightclub where the bulk of the story takes place. In 1972’s film adaptation starring Liza Minnelli as nightclub singer Sally Bowles, Grey recreated the role of The Emcee, and by default his is the most recognized and associated performance. It’s interesting to note that Grey was 40 when the film was release. Interesting because the character of The Emcee sense very young, childlike and innocent.
Instead of casting a more mature actor who could convince the audience they possessed that youthful innocence, director Ellis took a bold chance and cast young Noah Rice. Having seen Rice literally grow up on stage from his first show at The Keeton Theatre, Circle Player’s “13: The Musical” (about a group of 13 year-old kids) and more recently in The Keeton’s “White Christmas”, typically seemingly typecast as the happy-go-lucky boy next door, I wasn’t sure how he’d pull off the role of the scandalously deviantly enchanting master of ceremonies, but within seconds of the show’s opening number, “Wellkommen”, Rice proves why he was cast.
Instead of playing it like the somewhat older sexually ambivalent character portrayed by Grey in the original, and Alan Cumming in both the 1993 London, 1998 Broadway and more recent revivals, Rice literally breathes new youthful life into the role. While watching opening night, I constructed an entire backstory for Rice’s Emcee, one in which he was likely the son of one of the Kit Kat Klub girls who had grown up at the club and had become a bit of a dress-up plaything for the girls, thus explaining his tuxedo, rouged cheeks and exaggerated makeup. But I digress. Rice’s playful flirty delivery and strong vocal skills truly showcase the young actor as a force to be reckoned with in not just Nashville’s theatre scene, but also hold the promise of quite the career to come. What makes his performance even more compelling is his ability to morph the character from fun-loving, as brilliantly personified in “Two Ladies”, to sinister, with just a look, when the chillingly telling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” plays on a phonograph moments later.
Brittany Blaire Andersen, who’s just coming off directing Circle Player’s “The Little Mermaid”, returns to the stage as Sally Bowles. Andersen approaches Sally with the perfect balance of hope for her future and a healthy dose of the reality of her life. Her bawdy side is seen early on in “Don’t Tell Mama”, but it’s her overall stage presence, alongside the Kit Kat Klub girls, most notably Christen Heilman, in “Mein Herr” in which she truly shines. Not surprisingly, Andersen’s highlights come during two of the show’s most well-known musical moments, “Maybe This Time” (a song added when for the film, and frequently included in subsequent stage productions), and of course, the show’s titular tune, “Cabaret”. When Andersen poses the tuneful query, “What good is sitting alone in your room?”, by song’s end, the audience couldn’t image being anywhere but at “Cabaret”.
Andersen also lights up the interaction with J. Robert Lindsey, as Cliff, Sally’s roomie and wannabe love interest. When engaging in dialogue, the two actors don’t exactly convey a convincing spark, which kind of works since Cliff may have eyes for one of the Kit Kat Klub boys, but when the two duet in song for “Perfectly Marvelous”, it is, well, perfectly marvelous.
Among the cast, Howard Snyder as Herr Schultz turns in the performance of his career. It’s simply the role he was born to play. Anyone who knows Snyder knows he does indeed frequently wish “mazel” to friends and acquaintances, so casting him as Sally and Cliff’s Jewish boarding house neighbor isn’t just typecasting, it’s mazel for director Ellis.
Also a stroke of brilliance on Ellis’ part, casting one of his favorites, Amber Boyer as Fraulein Schneider, Sally’s boarding house landlady and Schultz’ unlikely love interest. Boyer, last seen at Keeton in the Ellis-directted “The Miss Firecracker Contest”, Boyer’s Schneider sings like Marlene Dietrich and interacts with Snyder like Vivian Vance’s Ethel to William Frawley’s Fred Mertz from “I Love Lucy”.
Another standout performance comes courtesy Ashley Wolfe as Fraulein Kost, yet another of Sally’s fellow tenants. Early on in the show Wolfe exhibits spot-on comedic timing in scenes with Boyer’s Schneider as the two women butt heads over Kost’s questionable revolving door of gentlemen callers played by Keeton newcomer Gabriel Welsh–who’s hairstyle sadly isn’t period and should be hidden by at least a bowler–and Austin Olive. Olive is filling in for Frank Aleman due to a scheduling conflict opening weakend. Wolfe’s not only great at comedy, but she’s got one of the show’s strongest female voices. Her eerie lead vocals on Act 1 ender “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, in German no less, is one of the show’s unexpected highlights. The audience simultaneously is stunned by the realization that the show is taking a decidedly serious turn, but can’t deny the sheer talent of the cast as they sing a tune written to sound like a German folk song, ironically written by Kander and Ebb, two jewish musical theatre fellas.
As mentioned above, Heilman and the rest of the Kit Kat Girls are phenomenal. I love that they’re not all your typical skinny minnie chorus girls. The aforementioned Heilman as well as Taylor Tracey, Brittany Easley, Rachel Rochester, Melissa Carlson, Paige Hall Christy and Maggie Jackson each have their very own very stylized look and convey unique attitudes with a look or a move.
Speaking of moves, choreographer Street’s moves pay homage to the show’s original choreography by Ron Field, as well as the more recognizable moves of Broadway icon Bob Fosse who directed the film adaptation. Especially enjoyable is the chairography of “Mein Herr”, a number, like “Maybe This Time”, that was added to the film version and subsequent stagings.
Lastly, special mention should be made of Jim Manning’s stark but effective Kit Kat Klub set as well as Suzanne Spooner-Faulk’s props. I want that phonograph and sofa! Layne Crutsinger and Denise Richardson’s costumes also aide in conveying an authentic 30s look with wardrobe that runs the gamut from nearly nothing naughty numbers for the Kit Kat Klub girls to gorgeous gowns, furs and period-perfect dresses worn by Andersen and Wolfe.
In recent years, director Ellis has showcased his love of cinematic theatre at the helm of Circle Players’ “Picnic” and more recently Keeton’s “The Miss Firecracker Contest”. With “Cabaret”, there’s plenty of nods to the work’s film adaptation, but there’s also an abundance of Ellis’ knowledge of and appreciation for the numerous London and Broadway productions of the show, as well as decidedly Ellisian tweaks and touches you’ll see nowhere else. Watching a staged production directed by Ellis is like watching a big-budget Hollywood spectacle come to life before your very eyes. “Cabaret” is just the latest example. Directorial highlights include Ellis opting for a more serious take of “If You Could See Her”. In the film and many stage versions, this song is performed by The Emcee singing to an actress in a monkey suit and tutu. For Ellis’ “Cabaret”, Rice tap dances while paired with Heilman as a beautiful ballerina. The tune’s shocking end, all the more thought-provoking when Rice sings the final lyric, “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all” as he places a yellow star on her chest, a symbol used by Nazis to identify Jews.
“Cabaret” has long been among my favorite musicals. With Ellis at the helm, Newman at the orchestra’s baton and Cary Street as choreographer, and not a misstep amongst the cast or crew, thanks to the Keeton Theatre, there’s proof once again that life is indeed a “Cabaret” ole chum, so be sure and come to the “Cabaret”. Shows continue at The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre (108 Donelson Pike, Nashville, TN 37214) on Thursday, August 11 and continues with shows Thursdays-Sundays until Saturday, August 27. The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre offers dinner and show tickets for $30 (Children 12 and under dinner and show tickets are $20). Speaking of dinner, “Cabaret” features a delicious meal of roast beef, green peas, mashed potatoes and a dinner roll, a thematically clever and devilishly delicious piece of German chocolate cake and your choice of tea or water and/or coffee. Salmon is available for a slight upcharge when making reservations. Dinner seating begins at 6 p.m., with the show beginning at 7. Sunday lunch seating begins at 1 p.m. with the show starting at 2 p.m. Show only tickets are also available for $18 (Adults) and $15 (12 and under). Group discounts are available for $27/ea. Click Here for tickets. For more information, call 615.883.8375 or Click Here.
If you’ve enjoyed this review of The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre’s “Cabaret”, be sure Click Here to check out my recent Rapid Fire 20 Q with members of the cast. Also, be sure and subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler. Interested in coverage of your performing arts events, be sure and drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.