Connecticut Repertory Theatre

A Welcome Cabaret at UConn

Review of Cabaret, Connecticut Repertory Theatre

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical drama Cabaret, with Book by Joe Masteroff, is a show that keeps on giving. One imagines that the original production—back in 1966—was deliberately decadent to show-off how the Sixties could be as openly licentious as the 1930s in Berlin, the setting of the drama. But the source material of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (adapted into a play as I Am a Camera by John Van Druten) contains themes that the film of Cabaret, in 1972, and the later stage revivals, in 1993 and 1998, brought to the fore. That makes for a palimpsest of a play—which means that each version I’ve seen (this is the fourth, counting the film) is different.

The current show at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Summer Nutmeg Series, at the University of Connecticut, directed by Scott LeFeber with choreography by Christopher d’Amboise and music direction by Ken Clifton, includes songs included in the original version then later dropped as well as songs added later. That makes for a longer first Act and a shorter second Act.

The story depicts Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), a young American writer in Berlin who meets a German businessmen, Ernst (Aidan Marchetti), to whom he gives English lessons, and who takes in an English cabaret singer of the seedy Kit Kat Klub, Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly, who created the role of Mary Poppins in both the East End and Broadway productions). They have a liaison, and the boarding house’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), is romanced by a Jewish fruit-seller, Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody), while another boarder, Fraulein Kost (Leslie Blake Walker), entertains various sailors whom she insists are family members. At the Klub, the rather jaded Emcee (Forrest McClendon) oversees the entertainment and comments on the action, which includes the rise of the Nazis to power.

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon) in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of Cabaret, directed by Scott LeFeber (photos by Gerry Goodstein)

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon) in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of Cabaret, directed by Scott LeFeber (photos by Gerry Goodstein)

At UConn, the tension between the show’s professionalism and less professional elements makes for an interesting mix that suits this musical. With four superlative Broadway show-persons in the main roles and post-graduates and a few undergraduates providing support, this Cabaret showcases a divide between the adults—Sally Bowles, the Emcee, Fraulein Schneider, Herr Schultz—and the more youthful ensemble members. The latter bring a freshness to their roles that plays off the experience of the elders—whether the Emcee’s glittering irony, Herr Schultz’s cautious emotion, Fraulein Schneider’s brittle matter-of-factness, or Sally’s willfulness and selfishness. Barnes’ Bradshaw comes into his own when confronted by changes, notably those in Ernst, who Marchetti plays with an endearing charm only to turn cold and baleful.

Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

The best aspect of the show is seeing Kelly deliver Sally. Here’s a Sally who is actually English, and it’s not just a case of not having to fake the accent, it’s a question of body language and a way of delivering a line. This Sally is never bubbly and rarely anxious; she’s blithe about her worldliness and lives as if ignoring unpleasantness makes it invisible. Her big numbers are just that—big! Even in her own mind, Sally is onstage, crafting a persona that will see her through. And when Kelly takes over a vocal—as in “Maybe This Time” in Act 1 and “Cabaret” in Act 2—it registers with newfound nuance. With a blonde wig and costumes that give her a tawdry sense of glamor, Kelly’s Sally knows more than she wants us to think she does, and her willful fantasy says a lot about why a transplanted Brit would stay in Berlin with the fascists on the rise.

Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

A standout element of the show is always the Emcee’s numbers, such as “Money,” and here McClendon gives the role a darkly cynical presence. We sense how he likes to toy with his audience’s jaded sense of entertainment and to flatter or affront their willingness to regard risqué material in burlesque—whether a tongue-in-cheek depiction of a ménage à trois involving a man and “Two Ladies,” or a sentimental send-up about dating outside one’s race, “If You Could See Her.” McClendon’s Emcee, when he shuts off the recording of a patriotic song, might convince us that his sexual freedom is the shape of things to come. And it almost is, until all illusions are swept aside in the show’s conclusion.

The show provides a sense of realism as well in letting us watch how a disillusioned survivor like Hoty’s Fraulein Schneider can be beguiled by Herr Schultz’s courtship, only to capitulate to the times in the defeated “What Would You Do.” At first the romance, in the charming “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” adds a deeper humanity to the proceedings, only to push us into a sense of how private lives end up at the mercy of public brutality. Brody’s Schultz, rather than long-suffering, is apt to take on even the worst setbacks and humiliations with a philosophic shrug, like many a “good German.”

Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody)

Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody)

The Kit Kat Kompany looks great in Fan Zhang’s costumes, though the rendering of d’Amboise’s choreography—which is classic stuff with lots of dips and swirls and backbends and jazz hands and leaps and splits—isn’t always as nimble as it could be. The orchestra, which lines the back stage, lit moodily by Timothy Reed, is a treat with tones that bring on both schmaltz and nostalgia. The ‘30s are like that . . . until they aren’t.

As a musical that shows interesting characters living through a difficult time, with great songs and mood and atmosphere, Cabaret is always worth catching. At UConn it’s even more welcome with such talent onstage in this big production.

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon), center, and the Kit Kat girls and boys

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon), center, and the Kit Kat girls and boys

 

Cabaret
Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Scott LeFeber
Starring Laura Michelle Kelly
Forrest McClendon
Dee Hoty
Jonathan Brody

Music Director: Ken Clifton; Choreographer: Christopher d’Amboise; Stage Manager: Tom Kosis; Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Fan Zhang; Sound Designer: Michael Vincent Skinner; Lighting Designer: Timothy Reed; Technical Director: John Parmelee; Voice & Dialect Coach: Jennifer Scapetis Tycer

Cast: Rob Barnes, Thomas Bergamo, Jamie Colburn, Torie D’Alessandro, Emma Dowdy, Madeline Dunn, Mike Katz, RJ Higton, Aidan Marchetti, Rebekah Santiago, Sydney Skye, Cole Thompson, Leslie Blake Walker

Orchestra: Ken Clifton, piano/conductor; Tom McDonough: synthesizer; Mallory Kokus: reed 1; Al Wasserman: reed 2; John Helmke: trumpet; Jim Lendvay: trombone; Thomas Bora: guitar/banjo; Matt McCauley: bass; Dan Gonko: drums

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
2019 Summer Nutmeg Series
July 4-21, 2019

Superstar of Sorrows

Review of Jesus Christ Superstar, Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Certainly, there is genius in the notion of Jesus Christ as a “superstar.” The venerable rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice dates from a time when the adulation surrounding rock stars could combine with counter-cultural possibilities to suggest a populist savior (think John Lennon and the “bed-in for peace”). Jesus, as a counter-cultural force both within the Roman empire and within the orthodoxy of Judaism, seems tailor-made to fit the bill.

All that was needed was to concoct a musical that combined both aspects of Jesus’s appeal—the religious and the political—with the energies of the youth of the day. Rice and Webber’s rock opera presents the main details of the Passion Play while also stressing the tensions without and within. As Jesus leads his hand-picked troupe of apostles into Jerusalem, the authorities grow concerned at the size of the mob following him, and Judas, one of the disciples, grows worried that “Jesus can’t control it like he did before.”

Jesus (Alex Prakken), center, with the apostles/ensemble (photos courtesy of CT Repertory Theatre production of "Jesus Christ Superstar")

Jesus (Alex Prakken), center, with the apostles/ensemble (photos courtesy of CT Repertory Theatre production of "Jesus Christ Superstar")

In Terrence Mann’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series, the trappings of a hippie theatrical troupe—put on the screen so indelibly by Norman Jewison in the 1973 film version—stress the youth of the followers, and with half the apostles male and half female, this Jesus leads a co-ed apostolate. The way in which youth and high spirits and community will be ground down by religious authorities and Roman potentates, while the fall of the Jesus cult will be seized on by media spoke to the times of the original Superstar, and Mann’s version—with vivid staging and design—brings all that back. (I saw a later Broadway production, way back in 1973, and the film, from which Mann borrows a few key touches, many times over the years.)

So what’s new in this classic tale? The element that struck me most forcefully is how overwhelmed Jesus is by the forces he has put into play. The part, as written, doesn’t give him much to say after his great soliloquy (or colloquy with God) in “Gethsemane,” and that song, in Alex Prakken’s rendering, is confrontational and brittle. Jesus, in the authors’ view, is anything but a “lamb of God.” He chides his followers (“why are you obsessed with fighting—stick to fishing from now on”), provokes Judas (“save me your speeches I don’t want to know”), and throws Pontius Pilate’s own words back at him. Prakken delivers accordingly. This is a Jesus who might be easily conceived as the rabble-rouser the high priests Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby) and Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt) fear he is. Jesus’s high-pitched screech at the clinging, needy sufferers who hound him—“Heal yourselves!”—is anything but compassionate.

Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt), Judas (Ryan Vona), Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby)

Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt), Judas (Ryan Vona), Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby)

The notion that the musical should show us a human Jesus is well-taken, but nowhere at CT Rep do we see a hero who rises above his suffering. The part of Judas is generally seen, rightly, as the main role, one driven by both a complicated love of Jesus as well as a belief in how best to serve the collective purpose. Ryan Vona gives Judas a canny, second-lieutenant look, and makes him the figure here who is actually betrayed. His cries in extremis leading up to his death in despair are suitably tortured. The rave-up of the song “Superstar”—as it always does—comes as the questioning of Jesus by the show’s authors, its words put in Judas’ mouth. “Who are you, what have you sacrificed?” Then comes the gripping answer. Jesus, whether “misguided martyr” (as Pilate says) or not, sacrifices himself.

Jesus Christ (Alex Prakken)

Jesus Christ (Alex Prakken)

In this production the crucifixion is strikingly executed, putting stress on the fact that there’s only one possible outcome. Having to enact Jesus’s death is harrowing and that means, as a musical, the ending is bound to feel bitter. Along the way, the more typically heart-tugging moments come from Sasha Renae Brown’s soulful Mary Magdalene, singing the popular hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with the requisite passion surging up in the midst of bewilderment. The bewilderment becomes even more eloquent in her duet with Peter (Will Bryant), “Could We Start Again, Please?”, delivered after Jesus has been taken away without a fight. As Pilate, Jonathan Cobrda lords it up well, and plays to our sympathies as a man who hoped to avoid this particular date with destiny. The iron sense that, as Jesus says late in the play, “everything is fixed and you can’t change it,” plays out badly for the humans involved. Jesus, in his immortal guise, lets things take their course.

Pontius Pilate (Jonathan Cobrda)

Pontius Pilate (Jonathan Cobrda)

The dance numbers—especially “Simon Zealotes” (with Simon Longnight as Simon)—and the forming of tableaux, such as a Da Vinci-esque Last Supper and a Pieta-like moment between Jesus and Mary, are where the power of this production lies. The big show-biz number—“King Herod’s Song”—is camped up amusingly by Griffin Binnicker, perfect as Herod, backed by a colorful ensemble. In general the ensemble, often in the aisles, makes the “50,000” feel palpable, and enacts all the joy to be found here.

Jesus (Alex Prakken), Mary Magdalene (Sasha Renae Brown)

Jesus (Alex Prakken), Mary Magdalene (Sasha Renae Brown)

And, of course, there’s the score—which makes guitar riffs feel “operatic” and, in the hands of a capable band, streamlined enough for “classic rock” status. I particularly liked having guitarist Thomas Bora come onstage at the opening to lead off the “Overture” with the needling guitar figure from “Heaven on Their Minds.” Elsewhere, some nice choral effects from the ensemble caught my ear, and Ryan Vona impressed me with his vocal ability to give new readings to familiar lyrics.

Prophet, messiah, confused leader, patsy to his Dad’s plans for the firm, Jesus is a superstar grown truculent with his management and tired of having to play the same role all the time, trying, in the early going, to keep his fans on course (“you’ll be lost, you’ll be sorry, when I’m gone”), and then throwing in the towel. Have no fear, the “cult” went on and became its own authority, though, given the events of Jesus Christ Superstar, it’s not surprising its hero has—to date—not returned.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Terrence Mann

Music Director/Conductor: Bryan McAdams; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Scenic Designer: Tim Brown; Choreographer: Christopher d’Amboise; Sound Designer: Michael Vincent Skinner; Costume Designer: Fan Zhang; Lighting Designer: Doug Harry; Technical Director: John Parmelee

Cast: Alex Prakken, Ryan Vona, Jonathan Cobrda, Griffin Binnicker, Sasha Renae Brown, Will Bryant, Tyler Grigsby, Simon Longnight, Bryan Mittelstadt, Jamie Colburn, Madeline Dunn, Shaylen Harger, Annelise Henry, Michael Katz, Nick Nudler, Jovick Pavajeau-Orostegui, Hayden Elizabeth Price, Paige Smith, Alessandro Viviano

Orchestra: Bryan McAdams, conductor, keyboard 1; Thomas Bora, guitar; Daniel Gonko, drums; Seth Lisle, bass; David Parsons, trumpet; Philip Plott, reed; Katya Stanislavskaya, keyboard 2

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
2018 Nutmeg Summer Series
July 12-22, 2018

 

King of Comedy

Review of Spamalot at Connecticut Repertory Theatre

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a huge fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and of Monty Python in general. I saw the film on its first U.S. run, several times, and had, in my teens, committed to memory many Python routines, including most of the dialogue of the film. I resisted going to see the Broadway run of Spamalot because, frankly, the idea of actors trying to take on the variety of roles and voices that the Pythons themselves—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and sometimes Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland—originated struck me as a kind of sacrilege. But time goes on and we’ve got to get over that.

Richard Kline (far right) as King Arthur with his Knights (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Richard Kline (far right) as King Arthur with his Knights (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Particularly as Spamalot has managed to bring to the stage the inspired inanity of the film, but with the advantage that the actors can actually hear the audience laughing. Where the film spoofed certain genres of film-making, not least the documentary and the arthouse film, Spamalot spoofs the stage and, particularly, Broadway musicals. Both film and musical, of course, spoof the august tale of King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table, the search for the Holy Grail, and the mix of the fabulous and the folksy that comprises the world of legend. Idle, who had to go it alone without his former colleagues in converting their best-known work into a stage show, is clever in how he “lovingly rip[s]-off” (to use the official terminology) the film and adapts it to the stage.

The Cast of Spamalot (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The Cast of Spamalot (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Tremendously popular, Spamalot has played all over the world—which is fitting as the good old British empire got about a bit. As staged at University of Connecticut’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre, directed by Richard Ruiz, with a few professional parts and the rest student actors, Spamalot comes across as a wacky romp trying to “find its legs.” The notion that Arthur has to put on a Broadway show, as charged by the Knights Who Until Recently Said Ni, feels like a quest indeed. Though production values may have been a bit different on Broadway, the show sends up professional theater while remaining true to what Idle conceived: taking aim at Broadway while aiming for Broadway. That means there are plenty of cheesy visuals that are remarkable for how serviceable they are—such as the castles for the outrageous French taunters and the plaintive plight of Herbert. There’s even catapulted cows and a hilarious plush, fanged rabbit. And a great variety of costuming by Heather Lesieur.

Arthur (Richard Kline) and BFA actors as attendants (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Arthur (Richard Kline) and BFA actors as attendants (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

The pros in the cast—Richard Kline as Arthur and Mariand Torres as the Lady of the Lake—together with choreographer Tom Kosis give this show its Broadway shine. The stagework throughout is lively and inventive (and special credit to Voice and Accent Coach David Alan Stern for keeping an ear to the original). Kline’s Arthur has the right straight-man tone—diffident and generally perplexed—but he can also soft-shoe and sing and break the fourth wall—“there goes my career”—all while seeming like an aging CEO trying to find out what makes his business go. And Torres, besides looking great in her various get-ups, from Disneyish princess to outlandish Vegas-style hoofer, handles the vocals given to the Lady—who is mainly only there to provide musical commentary—with joyous comic aplomb.

Mariand Torres as The Lady of the Lake (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

Mariand Torres as The Lady of the Lake (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

But about that part: since most of the Python’s works were “boys only” affairs, with an occasional actual female cameo, mostly in the T&A category, there’s not much for a female star to do in Spamalot. Idle’s solution is to make that lack thematic, having the Lady gripe—in full-throated song—about being underused. It’s funny, yes, but misses taking advantage of the Zoot/Dingo dichotomy from the film, as the stage play—disappointingly—drops the entire Castle Anthrax scene. It should’ve been expanded rather than excised and then there would be some actual female “peril” and possibly a song or two for a female character that isn’t simply meta-commentary.

The show is well cast, particularly in key roles: Gavin McNicoll is perfect as Pasty, Arthur’s overlooked Cockney assistant, who gets a major song, and Nick Nudler is rather Idle-esque as the cowardly “Brave” Sir Robin, who gets to lead the droll “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”—very Gilbert & Sullivan—while, as Sir Lancelot, Bryce Wood does full justice to the delightful “His Name is Lancelot.” Both songs develop facts about the American stage—the prevalence of Jews and gays—in a breezy, poking-fun way. Like “The Song That Goes Like This” and “Twice in Every Show,” the song routines laugh at the convenience of conventions even while benefiting from them, for the sake of a laugh.

BFA actor Gavin McNicholl (Patsy) leads the cast in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

BFA actor Gavin McNicholl (Patsy) leads the cast in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

And that’s pretty much the only take away from the show, as stated in “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (which Idle, who wrote it, cleverly steals from the Python’s other successful film, The Life of Brian): “They say it’s all a show, keep ‘em laughing as you go / Just remember that the last laugh is on you.” The laugh, initially, was that a show that spoofs successful Broadway musicals became a successful Broadway musical, winning three Tony awards. Here, the “last laugh” is that the show is also a delightful big production event for university theater with its infectious sense that it’s best not to take anything too seriously.

BFA Actor Bryce Wood as Tim the Enchanter (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

BFA Actor Bryce Wood as Tim the Enchanter (photo: Gerry Goodstein)

 

 

Richard Kline in
Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle; Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Featuring Mariand Torres
Directed by Richard Ruiz

Scenic Designer: Abigail Copeland; Lighting Designer: Adam Lobelson; Musical Director: John Pike; Costume Designer: Heather Lesieur; Voice & Accent Coach: David Alan Stern; Technical Director: Gregory Maine; Dramaturg: Benjamin McSheehy; Video/Projection Designer: Josh Winiarski; Choreographer: Tom Kosis; Sound Designers: Justin Graziani, Joel Abbott

Cast: Mikaila Baca-Dorion; Valerie Badjan; Juliana Bearse; Olivia Benson; Kent Coleman; Jeff DeSisto; Zack Dictakis; Tabatha Gayle; Derrick Holmes; Sarah Jensen; Richard Kline*; Kirsten Keating Liniger; Curist Longfellow; Gavin McNicoll; Chester Martin; Nick Nudler; Joon Ho Oh; Scott Redmond; Susannah Resnikoff; Ryan Rudewicz; Meredith Saran; Ben Senkowski; Ryan Shea; Brian Patrick Sullivan; Mariand Torres*; Bryce Wood; Jacob Harris Wright

*AEA member

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
University of Connecticut School of Fine Arts
April 21-May 1, 2016