Monday, August 19, 2013

Come Hear the Music Play: Light Opera Works Gives 'Cabaret' a Satisying, If Not Quite Sizzling, Showcase -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Light Opera Works
Cahn Auditorium, Evanston
Thru August 25

Beyond being one of the best Broadway musicals ever created--although it seems that my affinity may more acutely lie with the 1998 revival version--Cabaret holds a special place in my theater-loving heart.

For I consider it--or more specifically a touring edition of the '98 revival that played Chicago in the summer of 1999 with Teri Hatcher as Sally Bowles--to be my "Sandy Koufax moment."

I don't even know what his "moment" was, but although he had enough talent at an early age to make the major leagues at age 19, in his first 6 seasons with the Brooklyn/LA Dodgers, Koufax won 36 games and lost 40.

Over the next 6 seasons--which ended with his premature retirement at the peak of his career due to arthritis in his left elbow--he went 129-47 and won 3 unanimous Cy Young awards.

I'm not suggesting this is perfectly parallel, but although I was raised in a household where Broadway musical recordings were ubiquitous, was taken to A Chorus Line and other shows while still in grade school and gained enough appreciation to see a few shows in London, New York and at small local theaters, up until June 15, 1999--when Hatcher (then between Lois & Clark and Desperate Housewives stardom) inspired me to check out Cabaret--between the ages of 16-30 I had seen just 8 theatrical productions of my own volition.

After seeing Cabaret, which I loved enough to see a second time a month later, I have caught over 650 theatrical productions during the past 14 years.

Again, the analogy is far from precise, but though there were some deep-seated antecedents, I trace my almost-obsessive love of theater, and particularly musical theater--at least in terms of becoming a vociferous attendee ever since-- to seeing Cabaret 14 years ago. 

So though I had seen a decent version done at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2009, I took note of its staging by the Light Opera Works--where I've seen several stellar productions--and particularly upon seeing a rave review by the Tribune's Chris Jones and availability of discounted seats on HotTix, I was excited to revisit Cabaret this past Sunday.

I'm glad I did, even if I was not quite as dazzled as I was hoping.

LOW's artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller, who has an impressive list of acting credits but hadn't appeared onstage for quite some time, stars as the Emcee (of Berlin's Kit Kat Klub circa 1929-31).

Despite being quite a bit older than others I've seen in the role, Hogenmiller delivers a fine performance, starting by "Wilkommen" the audience--which, as usual at LOW productions, made me feel rather young and a good bit concerned about who else will be attending such shows in 10 years.

As Sally Bowles, an expatriate Brit who performs at the Kit Kat Klub, Jenny Lamb likewise gave likable renditions of Kander & Ebb gems such as "Don't Tell Mama" and the title song.

Light Opera Works is noted for employing a larger orchestra than most comparable theaters--albeit for considerably shorter runs--and it was a pleasure to hear the score given such a robust airing.

I was also quite impressed with the work by supporting performers, David Schlumph (as Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer who becomes Sally's lover), Barbara Clear (Fraulein Schneider, Cliff's landlord) and particularly Jim Heatherly who as Herr Schultz, an older Jew who cannot fathom what will soon unfold, gives a stellar performance of "Meeskite."

Even though it is not quite as emphatic as other reviews I've noted, my @@@@ (out of 5) rating definitely serves as a recommendation, particularly for those who have not encountered this terrific material elsewhere.

That said, as noted above, it didn't quite blow me away as much I would've wished, in part because director & choreographer Stacey Flaster's production didn't employ some of the aspects I recalled fondly from the '98 revival/'99 tour, directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall.

That version included three additional terrific songs by composer John Kander and lyricist John Ebb: "Mein Herr," "Maybe This Time" and "Money" (Makes the World Go 'Round), two of which were in the 1972 Cabaret movie.

The LOW staging also didn't seem nearly as sexy as it should have, nor as acutely sinister in the face of the impending rise of the Third Reich. 

This is hard to define, but I just didn't feel much palpable tension--even between Sally & Cliff, who seemed to lack much chemistry here. 

As usual, it could well be that I don't know what I'm talking about, given the effusive praise this staging has garnered. Or maybe the 1999 version of Cabaret I saw represents such a personal watershed moment that any deviations feel inferior. 

So I certainly don't dissuade anyone inclined to see an excellent rendition of an outstanding musical from getting to one of the three remaining performances of Cabaret at Evanston's Cahn Auditorium.

But while this production is definitely worthwhile, particularly in comparison to my first discovery of Cabaret on-stage I don't think I can quite call it life-changing.

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