Review by Jack Crumley of Cabaret: NKU Theatre
An ice storm and polar vortex hit the Cincinnati area two weeks ago. Temperatures were around 60 last week. Now it’s cold again, but Northern Kentucky University’s production of Cabaret is a Valentine that’ll keep audiences warm for the next few days.
Cabaret tells the story of a nightclub in 1931 Berlin, Germany, just as the Nazis are rising to power. Specifically, it’s about Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer, and Sally Bowles, an English performer who works at the Kit Kat Klub. Sally inserts herself into Cliff’s life, and they start to fall in love as the world around them starts to fall apart. There’s also a secondary plot involving Cliff’s elderly landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and her blossoming romance with an elderly tenant in the building, Herr Schultz.
Director Brian Robertson’s production tells the story presentationally. The Emcee, played by the inimitable Faustina Gorham (more on her in a bit), is resurrecting the run-down club in her memory, and it’s as if the audience is watching dancing girls and guys perform the musical at the club. Everyone on stage is scantily clad, at best, all the time. The guy playing Cliff (Mattison Sullivan) wears a vest and tie over his underwear. Herr Schultz (Matthew Nassida) is a man in spectacles and a sportcoat up top, and leggings straight out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show from the waist down. The woman playing the aging Fraulein Schneider (Sarah Hack) puts on a flower-print dress over her top and skirt, hunches over a bit, and she’s in character. When she’s not in character, she and the other performers are having a drink or lounging around on the outskirts of the stage. It makes for an incredibly interesting show, visually. As the main action is going on, you can take in subtle interactions between members of the cast off to the side. It sounds distracting, but for me, it gave the show an added level of depth. These are people playing characters playing characters. In between scenes that tell the main story, there are cabaret-style musical numbers that relate to the plot.
Even though that plot is about Cliff and Sally, it’s the Emcee who steals the show. Faustina Gorham’s performance is arresting. It’s infused with a Miley Cyrus-style sexuality and exuberance. Every single gesture she makes or syllable she sings is planned and purposeful. She’s dancing with the girls, working the crowd with classic songs like “Wilkommen,” or positioning herself on stage to be just outside the action, but all still very active. As much as Joel Grey defined the role in the 1972 Bob Fosse film, having a woman like Gorham play the part fits so perfectly with the queer and gender-bending undertones of the story, it’s hard for me to imagine a man playing the Emcee from now on. She’s the one you’ll be talking about after the show.
My praise of Gorham should in no way indicate that the rest of the cast is lacking. This entire group of actors is outstanding. Their voices all blend really nicely, and they’re all able to act as they sing, an ability that sometimes gets glossed over in musicals. And again, we’re talking double-duty: They’re playing cabaret performers who are playing musical characters. Sullivan’s Cliff has a quiet intensity about him that flares up. Hack’s Schneider is so believable as an older woman until Hack steps out of the main area, sheds the dress, and goes back to being a dancer. Her chemistry with Nassida’s Schultz when they sing “Married” is truly touching.
Makenzie Ruff plays Sally, the one-time featured player at the Kit Kat Klub who’s tossed out when her relationship with the club’s owner fizzles. Ruff’s voice is spectacular. Like Gorham, she’s a performer who’s often at the heart of the action, leading the company with songs like “Don’t Tell Mama” and the classic “Mein Herr.” But Ruff really shines in the more introspective moments. She absolutely brought the house down on Saturday night when she sang “Maybe This Time,” and her performance of “Cabaret” near the end carries the weight of this frivolous-now-serious story. It’s fitting that Ruff and Gorham share the final bow.
These actors who sing are also dancing during this show. Natalie Bellamy and DJ Bruegge’s choreography is at times, sweeping. From the chair gymnastics in “Mein Herr” to the living cuckoo clock-like dancing number to kick off Act II, this cast is put through some paces. Also, they’re playing these characters and singing these songs and dancing these steps in various states of undress. What costume designer Ronnie Chamberlain lacks in actual fabric is more than made up for in creativity. Stockings, lacy bodysuits, football shoulder pads, corsets, leather pants, and heels are all featured. It’s really impressive work that showcases each character’s personality.
Supporting these superlative performances is an orchestra that never overpowers the singers, conducted by Jamey Strawn. The reeds, brass, strings, and drums didn’t hit a sour note and played with the same sense of fun that the cast is showcasing. They played from the back of the stage, and it’s one more testament to the strength of this production that there were no issues between the orchestra and the actors, even with no one in front to direct.
The only issue I had was with the sound. One of the microphones had a bad wire or was rubbing against something, and that was distracting for much of Act I. To the credit of the cast (again), that microphone issue didn’t seem to affect their performances at all, however. The problem was eventually fixed, and I doubt it will be an issue again.
Cabaret tells a powerful, intense story that’s masked in lighthearted gaiety. This production at NKU handles the material in a deft, talented, and unique way. This is a mature show–in a sense that goes beyond offensive language or nudity–that’s being presented by a brilliant group of people. It is not to be missed.
Cabaret plays Wednesday to Sunday at the Corbett Theatre on the campus of Northern Kentucky University through February 24. For tickets, call 859-572-5464 or visit theatre.nku.edu