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Right This Way to “Cabaret” at NKU

Review by Kevin Reynolds of “Cabaret”: NKU Theatre

On a Valentine’s Day evening, what good is sitting alone in your room?

While it will never appear on a list of “most romantic musicals,” the current production of “Cabaret” at Northern Kentucky University‘s School of the Arts certainly evokes plenty of other emotions.

Director Brian Robertson has assembled a stellar cast of performers with strong voices and a cohesive choral style. This is a good time to point out that, while “Cabaret” has always featured fluid gender portrayals, I would define this production as gender defiant. It starts from the first moment with a female Emcee, which at first seems counter to traditional “Cabaret” wisdom, but when you are exposed to the relentless debauchery of pre-Nazi Berlin and the overt sexuality oozing from the stage, those concerns — combined with the commanding stage presence and fully embraced portrayal by Faustina Gorham – that choice seems completely reasonable.

And while the Emcee often garners much of the attention, there can not be a compelling, emotional “Cabaret” without a compelling, emotional Sally Bowles. Every pivotal moment, every plot advancement, and every true sense of humanity comes through Sally. Makenzie Ruff brings all the acting and musical power the role demands and then some. Her performance of “Maybe This Time” was heartfelt, beautifully phrased, and brought raucous cheers from the opening night audience. 

There are several other performances of note: Sam Johnson as both Ernst and one of the kick line dancers proved his tremendous versatility. Haley Gillman as Frau Kost really brought the vocal goods to the Act One finale of the reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a duet with the aforementioned Sam Johnson, when the tone of the entire production shifts to Nazi fear right before our eyes.

Finally, Sarah Hack and Matthew Nassida as Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz pulled off what I think was an interesting choice by director Robertson. As the two elders in the story, they never changed out of their decadent Kit Kat Club attire for these roles. Instead, by donning a few costume pieces, they adopted some older person characteristics (a little slumped over or a slightly higher-pitched voice) to become Schneider and Schultz. I admit that it took some getting used to, seeing the kindly fruit vendor Schultz in a fedora, suit jacket, mesh t-shirt and fishnets with garters. But again, when seen in the context of the entirety of this production’s vision, it was a consistent choice and they pulled it off beautifully.

High praise to the set design by Lindsey Purvis – it was an excellent use of the space from side to side, front to back, and top to bottom. The placement of the outstanding 11-piece orchestra (under the direction of Jamey Strawn) at the back of the stage perfectly fit the Kit Kat Club. The tawdry, gender bending costumes by Ronnie Chamberlain and the excellent dialect coaching by Taylor Isabel Winkleski made the characters resonate more fully.

If you’ve seen “Cabaret” before, don’t let that keep you from seeing this singularly unique, well-staged and well-performed production. In fact, a little research showed the casting of a female as the Emcee is a rare occurrence and, frankly, has many detractors. I can see why, if done simply as a stunt and the surrounding production doesn’t embrace that choice, but this one does, and it makes for a truly satisfying theatrical experience.

“Cabaret” runs through February 25 at NKUs Corbett Theatre. For tickets, visit NKY SOTA Box Officeor call (859) 572-5464.