The musical Cabaret has an eventful history, and well after it reached Broadway icon status, revivals — stage and screen — have continued to rework the story and characters, sometimes adding and subtracting musical numbers. It is a curious and dark show, with an atypical show-biz spirit driven by a downer setting — 1931 Berlin, where the people are financially strapped and Hitler's Third Reich is gaining power.
Credit the authors — Joe Masteroff (book) and songwriting team John Kander and Fred Ebb — with successfully finding their way into the material, based on Christopher Isherwood's short stories about a seedy nightclub, 19-year-old English cabaret performer Sally Bowles and her American writer-friend Cliff Bradshaw.
On the surface, it's hard to be sure why such a dour tale would be musically sustaining, and the songs in Cabaret don't always move the action along. They are primarily character songs and numbers performed in the Kit Kat Club, where tawdry is a way of life. That said, the tunes — with all their Weillesque gloom and sexual impudence — work, reinforcing the air of melancholy and entertainingly pacing the script.
Happily, Tennessee Repertory Theatre's new production doesn't disappoint, providing a thoroughly credible version of a show that requires major talent to succeed.
Performing on Gary Hoff's two-story set — ingenious in its economy, with revolving sidepieces and a centrally located nightclub that oozes squalid theatricality — director René Copeland's cast of 16 does the piece justice. Moreover, the players breathe originality and vitality into a timeworn vessel.
For a guy who hasn't done a musical in about 20 years, David Compton's Emcee is a wonder — lean, mean and engagingly satirical. His work, including the singing, is subtly edgy, and he turns in a bravura portrayal.
The tale's subplot, involving an older Jewish fruit salesman and a spinster landlady, is ultimately more compelling than the Sally-Cliff storyline (which hints at Cliff's bisexuality but never fully develops the point). Derek Whittaker and Ruth Cordell handle the salesman and landlady roles with admirable showmanship and deep feeling.
Jenny Littleton's return to the Rep as Sally is noteworthy, if only because she gets to change things up while away from her longtime gig in The Doyle and Debbie Show. Littleton's numbers with the Kit Kat Club's likably sleazy (and very hardworking) chorus girls are lively — credit choreographer Pam Atha for creating dances that incorporate some of Bob Fosse's challenging signature moves.
Littleton renders Act 1's "Maybe This Time" with assuredness, though frankly it's rather a clunky song, requiring maximum physical effort for minimum emotional return. Her Act 2 rendition of the famous title tune is also intense, its modulations pushing her to the vocal limit.
As Cliff, Patrick Waller is fine in a somewhat thankless role. Martha Wilkinson plays the trampy Fraulein Kost and B. J. Rowell makes a strong Rep debut as the Nazi Ernst.
The Act 2 entr'acte provides musical director Paul Binkley and his excellent band a well-deserved opportunity to display their considerable talents. The ensemble rocks out — and for most of the evening, so does everyone else involved with this show.
The Rep's Cabaret has a fairly long run by Nashville standards, and it should be worth the trip.
Belmont University's Department of Theatre and Dance is currently presenting On the Verge; or, The Geography of Yearning, a rarely produced script by veteran playwright and screenwriter Eric Overmyer. Three Victorian-era lady explorers embark on a journey through "Terra Incognita," and their trek morphs into an excursion into the mid-20th century. Overmyer clearly possesses a nimble intellect, and his fanciful, witty and culturally aware play demands careful listening. That's not much of a problem, though, since the charming leading women — Grace Kelly Mason, Ashley Glore and Madeline Marconi — offer consistently poised and literate performances. Their hard work is helped along by Nettie Kraft's sure-handed direction, R. Paul Gattrell's clever settings and stage effects, and Miles Gattrell's appealing costumes. On the Verge runs through Feb. 24 at Belmont's Troutt Theater.
Belmont also recently announced that its production of Les Misérables (March 15-24) will be the country's first university performance of the Tony Award-winning musical.