Tom Strini

The Rep’s “Cabaret,” a blockbuster with guts

By - Sep 18th, 2010 12:48 am
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Emcee, played by Lee E. Ernst. Milwaukee Rep photo.

Friday night, a dazzling theatrical juggernaut with moral force to match its glitz opened Mark Clements’ tenure as artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Kander and Ebb’s 1964 Cabaret looked and felt spanking new in a production remarkable for its cinematic fluidity and seamless integration of theatrical effects, pointed acting, narrative, dance and music. (The canny set and costume designs by Todd Edward Ivins and Jeff Nellis’ gorgeous lighting help a lot.)

A fearless cast of 33 took on the smarmy sensuality of Berlin between the wars with fierce abandon. The wantonness of the sex and wildness of the German version of the Jazz Age looked like a hell of a lot of fun at first, as an island of joyous excess in a chaotic world. But as the show went on and the world outside the Kit Kat Klub imploded, the excess turned ever more grotesque. The Klub came to look more and more like an ever-shrinking coffin.

The moral centers of the tale are Geoffrey Hemingway as Clifford Bradshaw, a young American novelist uncertain of his sexual orientation and in search of inspiration; Kelley Faulkner as Sally Bowles, naughty British expat and Kit Kat singing star; Linda Stephens, as Fraülein Schneider, their resigned but decent landlady; and Jonathan Gillard Daly as the kind, elderly Jewish shopowner who would marry Schneider.  They play their intimate scenes together in a lovely natural way, even when the action and conversation carry them into song or into little couples’ dances. Their chemistry and beautifully matched scale and style give the show moral weight because the characters feel like real people.

Kit Kat Klub members and emcee Lee E. Ernst. Milwaukee Rep photos by Michael Brosilow.

Of course Clements, as director, had a great deal to do with that. But Clements’ profound accomplishment lies in the way the show flows from those very real human moments into the surreal world of the club, where everyone is in costume, everyone plays a role and no one is quite real. Faulkner’s Sally buys into the idea that “life is a Cabaret, old chum,” and lives that life outside the club, in a whirl of parties, drinking, sex, pills and abortions. Hemingway’s Bradshaw pulls her toward reality, and she quivers suspended for a time. Clements’ production clearly puts Sally’s soul in the balance. During a gripping rendition of the title song late in the show, Faulkner makes Sally tilt toward hell. The moment is devastating.

Her personal damnation stands as a macrocosm of a society on the tipping point. She descends before a cheering audience of Nazis as Germany descends into its national madness.

Lee E. Ernst plays the Klub’s master of ceremonies and, in a larger sense, is Cabaret‘s ringmaster. He pops up unexpectedly amid the intimate scenes and guides the transitions back to the shows within the shows. You could call him the devil, but that wouldn’t be quite right. His emcee is not so much actively evil as morally indifferent, supremely cynical and decadently sensual. He tells you so, in the lazily sung, chilling I Don’t Much Care (added in the 1998 revival).

Ernst is the supreme wonder in a cast of wonders. The man moves like a panther, except when he needs to be a serpent. He minces about or takes on macho presence, in an amplified version of the outsized gender roles routine among all the entertainers at the club. And even when he’s playing languid, Ernst emits a tireless and electrifying energy.

Choreographer Michael Pink (AD of the Milwaukee Ballet) knows his bumps and grinds, and the fabulous Kit Kat girls weren’t demure with them. The dancing went beyond that, though, into geometries that spoke to events outside the Klub. He sent dancers splintering into chaos and congealing into tight squadrons in quick contrast, as the world fell apart and people banded together in desperate orthodoxies. I also admire the way Pink wove vernacular dances of the day into the Kit Kat shows, and how his modest dance number for Stephens and Daly spoke to the growth of their gentle affection.

And what an orchestra. Quite a few of the musicians have active roles in the show. I can’t imagine where Clements found women who look great in garters and stockings and can play, say, the euphonium or the bass saxophone very well, but he did.

I also can’t imagine how Clements orchestrated this vast and enormously complicated production and paced it down to the sixteenth-note. Even on opening night, Cabaret ran as if Swiss jewelers had made it. Cabaret is a smashing debut for the Rep’s new AD.

Cabaret — the first musical ever played on the Rep’s Powerhouse stage — runs through Oct. 24. Tickets are $15-$65. Click here to order, or call the Rep’s box office, 414-224-9490.

0 thoughts on “Review: The Rep’s “Cabaret,” a blockbuster with guts”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Lee Ernst is not to be missed. Milwaukee knows he can act, but who knew he could fool us at first? I was well into this performance before I was absolutely sure. (I obviously did not read the program ahead of time…)

  2. Anonymous says:

    Can’t wait to see it. I may have to go twice…

  3. Anonymous says:

    I saw the show last night. BOOO!!!!! Sally Bowles effected an upper crust English accent throughout the show and was way too old. Some lowlife Milwaukee player too old for the part, who couldn’t even cut or dye her bright red soccer mom hair to resemble something like Liza, the archetype and icon for the part. F u. Old lady! Play some old crone on stage. You looked STUPID up there, despite the fact that you were surrounded by talented cast and musicians. The M/C was a little long in the tooth, but he held his own. I drove up from Chicago to see this show and was so very disappointed. The blonde Aussie chorus girl was a highlight for me. Hopefully she’ll become a down under ingenue soon along the likes of Toni Collette. Here’s a thought: let her play Sally Bowles, rather than grandma soccer mom with the WRONG English acccent. Ever watched BBC? There are a few other accents that would have applied to a more working girl type that Sally was supposed to be. You totally missed the mark, lady. Take your cues from the down under girl, at least she’s by descent, more English that you’ll ever be, old chum!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Lee, I had that same experience – his name mentioned during the -Rep in Depth-, but I didn’t pick up on him until at least halfway through Act I….what a delight! I was already smiling from the show…
    It’s funny for me to read that someone else had that same experience.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, everyone, for commenting. Comments make the site livelier and raise our profile with search engines. Please continue to propel our discussions.

  6. Anonymous says:

    For a first musical, the Rep put on a great show. The large, elevated band was a better backup than most pit orchestras have been lately for Broadway productions. The Kit Kat productions were varied, innovative and effective dance and song.
    But these numbers were transitions between episodes of the personal stories away from the club. This was still an actor’s production – not the usual musical. The duets between Clifford Bradshaw and Sally Bowles and between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz were a natural and tender extension of the dialogue in expressing the relationships between the couples.
    The transitional episodes were notable in the way they set the tone – a dramatic downward spiral as the society was disintegrating.
    I saw the 1998 Broadway revival at Studio 54. In that production, the story lines were subservient to an “in your face”, “let us entertain you” focus on the Kit Kat club productions.
    I prefer the Milwaukee production, which was based upon an earlier Broadway revival.
    Always catch the pre-talk before Rep productions. For Cabaret, catch the talk back after the production and learn the approach director (and new Rep Artistic Director) Mark Clements is bringing to Milwaukee.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I took another look at these comments and one of them requires a rebuttal:
    John: “F.u Old Lady,” aimed at a talented, hardworking actress is not criticism, it’s idle meanness. You didn’t like her hairdo, you didn’t like her accent, you think she’s too old, you think she should look more like Liza Minelli c. 1973, OK, fine. You’re entitled to your opinions.
    You are not, however, entitled to be a jerk. — Strini

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