‘Cabaret’ at Carte Blanche Studios
This is a review of sorts; as much as a critical theater review can be when regarding the staging of some very earnest community theater. Carte Blanche Studios was formed in spirit by Jimmy Dragolovich and co-produced in a physical space with Adam White via a rehabbed lounge and 80-seat intimate theater at 1024 So. 5th Street just south of the beloved Mexican Restaurant District. The shows are put on with the kind of can-do spirit that the old Andy Hardy “hey gang, let’s put on a show!” used to present.
They do hold auditions for shows, but a cast of regulars are slowly forming after the 2009 Theater Season production of Noises Off! back in late February. The lounge, replete with local art and a bar (so far, non-alcoholic), is nice yet reminiscent of a DIY-attitude with random light fixtures and unfinished door sconces. So it’s attending theater at the beginning of a venue – with more polish than perhaps the scrappy Darling Hall or eccentric Boulevard Theater but still obviously without the resources of a downtown corporate venue or academic auditorium.
The audience on a Friday night filled the seats, even if a good percentage might have been friends, family, and fellow local theater enthusiasts to the actors and crew – perhaps why many of the ingenue burlesque performers were brave enough to bounce around the stage in black lingerie for 90 minutes.
In their second venture of the season, Dragolovich and company chose the 1966 (and 1998) Tony Award and Oscar winner Cabaret. Given the extreme closeness of the stage and its affront to the audience, it is certainly a daunting and intriguing choice. As mentioned, many of the players have to deliver lines, sing, and kick kick twirl kick while in various stages of provocative wear only inches from the front row. A series of invisible doors and narrow entryways rush players onstage and props switch back and forth. With no abundance of space, every inch becomes amorphous and left to the audience to imagine further.
Guided ably by Michael F. Traynor as the Emcee, the audience is bid Wilkommen to Berlin in the 1930s during a period of underground risque. Joel Grey originated the standard for this role on stage and film by playing it as a seriously androgynous showman, while Alan Cumming turned up the volume in the 1998 Broadway revival by playing him as a randier host. Traynor’s Emcee is a bit more built physically, and in this setting makes the role into a smirking satyr in league with the audience’s understanding of events. As a matter of economical logistics in the Carte Blanche staging, he is present even during numbers away from the Kit Kat Club, acting as a omnipresent ghost.
If you’ve noticed a budget in the description or acting praise for this production of Cabaret, it’s just the haunting problem of this being community theater in its truest form: the beautiful women (and they are) slithering during “Mein Herr” are occasionally out of step and hesitant to ‘own’ their characters vamping power, Hamburg is convincing as a fish out of water American but effete as a bisexual character with a sordid past, and the orchestra has issues hitting the hard notes while remaining temperate in volume.
It’s good to go out for a night of theater anywhere in Milwaukee, and you will enjoy this production especially if you haven’t seen the story before. But it can’t necessarily be recommended for the hardcore theatergoer that expect shows to start on time, to have sufficient ushering and ticketing staff, or assume to see patrons dress up when out on the town. This is still a place that’s a work in progress and entertainment for an open-minded audience. It will be interesting to see what Dragolovich and friends will do with upcoming stagings of Room Service and A Midsummer’s Night Dream – not because of the content, which is mild compared to the romp that is Cabaret – but as a foundling troupe looking for a persona in the performing arts.
Cabaret finishes its run this weekend May 7-10, 2009. Reservations due to limited space is highly recommended. Call 262.716.4689 for ticketing info., and Carte Blanche’s myspace blog for details.
For venue, tickets, showtimes and more, visit Footlights Milwaukee online.