I have seen numerous professional and community theater productions of “Cabaret,” the Tony Award-winning musical. with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, including the 1998 Broadway revival, starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee and Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles. This past spring I saw a touring company production of the 2014 Broadway revival. Suffice to say, the Actors Theatre of Indiana production I saw Saturday at the Studio One Theater, though limited in scale and scope, managed to hold its own, thanks to strong performances from its lead and supporting actors.
ATI’s interpretation of the musical, directed by Billy Kimmel, is based on the aforementioned 1998 Sam Mendes-Rob Marshall Broadway revival. It was darker and grittier than the original 1966 production and the subsequent 1972 film which won Liza Minnelli an Academy Award and made her an international star. “Cabaret’ itself, is based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I Am a Camera,” which was adapted from the 1939 short novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” by Christopher Isherwood.
The story, which is set in 1931 Berlin, centers on a British cabaret singer, Sally Bowles (Cynthia Collins) and her relationship with Cliff Bradshaw (Eric Olson), an American novelist. She performs in the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy cabaret which serves as a symbol for sinister and threatening developments occurring in Germany during the period in which the Nazi party is coming into power. Shepherding the club’s action is the outrageously flamboyant Emcee (Ben Asaykwee). Serving as a sub-plot, is the ill-fated relationship between Fraulein Schneider (Judy Fitzgerald), the owner of a boarding house and her Jewish love interest Herr Schultz (Darren Murrell), owner of a fruit stand.
As mentioned previously, the success of the ATI “Cabaret” cast is mostly due to the performances of its actors, many of whom are the most seasoned in the area.
The very first time I saw Q Artistry founder Asaykwee perform (in his own original musical —”Zirkus Grimm”), I felt that he was born to play the “Cabaret” Emcee. Blessed with uncommon multiple talents as a singer, dancer and actor, Asaykwee was flawless as the gender-bending, Kit Kat Klub master of ceremonies.
ATI co-founder Collins, though more mature than the role suggests, was nevertheless believable as the vivacious Sally Bowles. Collins was especially affecting when she sang her character’s two solos, “Maybe This Time,” and the show’s title song “Cabaret.”
Standing out was Babich as Fraulein Schneider, in her searing performance of “What Would You Do,” when her character, falling prey to fear, renounces love in order to avoid possible retribution for marrying a Jew.
What was not believable and missing from the production was an atmosphere that mirrored a degenerate, highly sexualized, pre-World War II Berlin sub culture and the ominous foreshadowing of the horror that was to follow.
Despite the production’s mostly technical shortcomings, however, the script’s message of tolerance, particularly relevant during a time in which politics and world affairs are in a toxic state, indisputably shined through.
Single tickets for “Cabaret” are $43 for adults, $37 for seniors, and $20 for students (with a valid student I.D.). Wednesday evening performances are $25 for adults. Ticket may be purchased online, atistage.org or through the Center for the Performing Arts box office, (317) 843-3800.