One of my favorite pastimes has been witnessing the growth of the actor-singer-dancers I’ve seen in productions presented by Summer Stock Stage. Over the years, I have regularly covered the ambitious company that focuses on “inspiring young people and emerging artist to learn, connect, and perform.” I have also reviewed the group’s offshoot program, Eclipse, a professional company made up primarily of college theatre students, many of whom are SSS alumni. So, it was with great interest, I attended the Friday night performance of Eclipse’s “Cabaret” on the Livia & Steve Russell mainstage at Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre.
Based on “I Am a Camera,” a 1951 play by John Van Druten, adapted from “Goodbye to Berlin,” a 1939 semi-autobiographical novel by Christopher Isherwood, “Cabaret” is a 1966 musical with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff. The musical was later made into a 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Gray. I saw the 1998 Broadway revival starring Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson at Studio 54, a touring production in Louisville in 2014, and several non-professional productions.
Set in Berlin near the end of the Jazz Age in 1929-1930, just as the Nazis were coming into power, the musical focuses on the decadent nightlife of the sleazy KitKat Club and centers on American writer Clifford Bradshaw’s (Donathan Arnold) love affair with English cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Cynthia Kauffman). A subplot involves a romance between German boarding-house owner Fräulein Schneider (Judy Fitzgerald) and her senior suitor Herr Schultz (Charles Goad), a Jewish fruit vendor. At the center of the story is the androgynous master of ceremonies (Matthew Conwell) at the notorious KitKat Club, which represents Weimar-era Berlin as a font of excess and anguish, inhabited by clueless citizens unaware of the calamity that will soon befall them.
Impeccably directed by Carlos Medina Maldonando, also an accomplished actor, the Eclipse cast, with their exemplary training, demonstrated they are more than ready for professional lives on the stage. Turning in a dynamic performance as the flighty, devil-may-care Sally Bowles was Kauffman, who most recently dazzled me in the title role of SSS’s 2019 production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Kauffman especially shined during her show stopping solo of “Maybe This Time.” Putting his own stamp on an iconic role associated with Joel Grey was Conway, who was potent and showed charisma as the gender-bending, flamboyant emcee. Arnold was ideally cast as the sexually confused and hapless Bradshaw. Pros Goad and Fitzgerald showed why they are among the area’s most gifted and respected veteran actors.
Impressively produced by SSS co-founder Emily Ristine Holloway, the show’s production values were their usual top-notch quality, including the striking costume designs of Jeanne Bowling, Quinten James’s sinister-flavored lighting design, and Zach Rosing’s seamless sound design. I wish I could say the same for the set, or lack thereof, which was non-existent or minimal at best. Whether owing to budgetary considerations or artistic choice, it was unfortunate that even a simple physical representation of the KitKat Club was not incorporated. As it was, the playing area appeared cramped, with the superb eight-member KitKat Cub band led by Nathan Perry, flanking both sides of the stage. In previous productions, the band was elevated on a platform above the playing area. Similar staging would have served this production well too.
On the other hand, since the play’s the thing, hats off to Mike Raunick’s (prized for leading five choirs at North Central High School) outstanding vocal direction, as well as NYC-based choreographer Alexandria Van Paris’s nod to Rob Marshall’s original raunch-tinged movements, executed flawlessly by the talented ensemble comprising the KitKat Club girls and boys
A proponent of educational theatre, and unabashed fan of Summer Stock Stage’s mission to provide professional experiences for fledgling artists, I highly recommend this polished effort that showcases gifted performers who give it their all to entertain.
For tickets and information about “Cabaret,” which continues through June 12, visit phoenixtheatre.org.