We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, February 8, 2019


The cast of Cabaret at Manhattan School of Music

Last night's production of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret at Manhattan School of Music was a revelation to us. First of all, the performances were beyond wonderful; secondly, since we are not particularly fans of Broadway or American musical theater, we arrived totally ignorant of this highly relevant show which resonates heavily with our current social and political climate, employing entertainment to makes us think.

A German friend of ours has pointed out that Trump's demagoguery and power grabbing, by attempting to declare a "national emergency", reflects the rise of Hitler in Germany. His attempt to get Americans to fear Latin American immigrants reflects Hitler's success in demonizing Jews as being responsible for Germany's problems in the 1930's.  "Be very scared", she warned.

The licentiousness portrayed in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Klub reflects the very conditions that has aroused the reprisals of the "religious Right". The stunning "Telephone Song", using Ron Field's original choreography, so well performed by the Company, reminded us of the superficial connections dictated today by online dating.

The basis for this stunning piece of theater lay with Christopher Isherwood's stories about 1930's Berlin which were then adapted into a 1951 play by John Van Druten entitled I am a Camera. Producer Harold Prince assembled a talented team of bookwriter Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander, and lyricist Fred Ebb. The 1966 show they wrote has been through a number of iterations, just like Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Through a stroke of good fortune, Mr. Kander is not only alive and well but also ready, willing, and able to put together a performing version for MSM which borrowed from the original, the filmed version, and more recent revivals.

What astonished us about the performances is that all the performers are sophomores and juniors in the MSM Musical Theater Program! How could such youngsters be so convincing in portraying complex and often much older characters!!! We assume it must be a combination of inborn talent, much hard work, excellent training, and the fine direction of Don Stephenson.

Completely heartbreaking was the late-life romance between Fraülein Schneider (Laura Zimmer) and her fruit-merchant beau Herr Schultz (Xander Pietenpol). Their posture and gestures were those of the elderly, almost but not quite beaten down by life. We were sitting far away so cannot say whether they looked elderly from down front, but they sure convinced us! Their Act I duets "It Couldn't Please Me More" and "Married" were heartwarming; Ms. Zimmer's solo in Act II ("What Would You Do") broke our heart. We reflected back on her life-accepting solo at the beginning ("So What") and knew that she would survive this loss of late life happiness.

In the lead, Jasmine Rogers made an energetic Sally Bowles, limning her character's hysteria right until the final rendition of "Cabaret" in which she virtually decompensates.  As her innocent American bisexual beau Clifford Bradshaw, Chandler Sinks was equally convincing. We believed that his character could never write the Berlin stories with the frenetic Sally as a distraction, but that once home in the USA he would be able to focus and make good literary use of his experiences.

Holding it all together as The Emcee was Daniel Lawrence who can dance up a storm and create a memorable character as well.  "Willkommen" and "Money" were brilliant in Act I. We found his Act II number "If You Could See Her" shocking. He dances with a person in a gorilla costume looking as if he were mocking Afro-Americans but it turned out he was mocking Jews. We do not object.  This is a dramatic portrayal of what was going on in Berlin at that time. We don't believe in sanitizing history.

Indeed Joseph Zook had the thankless role of Ernst Ludwig, the jovial German who befriends the innocent hero and involves him in carrying papers back and forth to Paris.  What the details were, we cannot say because the spoken dialogue was not as successfully delivered as the lyrics of the songs, of which every word was clear. But when he appeared with a swastika armband, we knew along with the hero that he was up to no good.

Notable was the performance of Talitha McDougall Jones who portrayed the "lady of the evening" Fraülein Kost who has stage presence to spare and did a fine job in the reprise of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". We enjoyed her confrontations with her landlady who objected to the string of sailors coming and going.

The excellence of the singing was matched by the playing of the fine orchestra. David Loud was Music Director. Scott Davis' Set Design was simple in its elements (a staircase, some tables and chairs, some doors, and a skylight) but appeared just right-- proving that sometimes "less is more". Much atmosphere and mood was contributed by Shawn Kaufman's evocative Lighting Design. Liza Gennaro's choreography was lively and suited the talents of the students. Sue Makkoo's Costume Design was a propos and attractive.

The sell-out crowd shared our enthusiasm with standing ovations. Although the ending was sad and also scary, departing crowds seemed delighted by the performance, as did we. Remarkable! We wouldn't have enjoyed it any more on Broadway.

(c) meche kroop

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