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The Milwaukee Rep wasn’t shy about announcing its new era this weekend. Its opening production of Cabaret, directed by the Rep’s new Artistic Director Mark Clements, exploded on the Powerhouse stage with pulsing hips and the wail of a full onstage band, not to mention an entrance by the Master of Ceremonies (Lee Ernst) worthy of […]

The Milwaukee Rep wasn’t shy about announcing its new era this weekend. Its opening production of Cabaret, directed by the Rep’s new Artistic Director Mark Clements, exploded on the Powerhouse stage with pulsing hips and the wail of a full onstage band, not to mention an entrance by the Master of Ceremonies (Lee Ernst) worthy of a Lada Gaga concert.
Cabaret is a canny choice for Clements, who wants to help the Rep connect with a younger audience (a perennial goal, it seems, of American theaters these days), and wants to open up the programming of the Rep to include the occasional big-ticket musical. There were certainly skeptics among the Rep’s long-time supporters, but at the close of the show on Friday’s opening night, a few of the naysayers were the first to jump to their feet.

It’s also a challenging show by virtue of its iconic history. Joel Grey put an indelible stamp on the role of the emcee in the original Broadway production and the Bob Fosse movie it spawned (Liza Minnelli played Sally Bowles only in the film; she never appeared on stage). At least until 1998, when Sam Mendes turned America’s own palace of decadence, Studio 54, into the Kit Kat Klub, in which Alan Cumming made the role of the emcee his own.
Such is the challenge for Lee Ernst, not the first person you’d think of casting as the emcee.

While Grey was an impish waif (even in the 1987 Broadway revival, at the age of 55), Cumming went full kink, translating Weimar free spirit into full fin-de-siecle depravity. Director Clements and costume designer Todd Edward Ivins embrace Mendes’s Kit Kat lewdness. But they also owe a lot to the images of George Grosz, one of the more grotesque of the German Expressionist painters. A talented makeup artist, Ernst has all but turned himself into a Grosz canvas, and his physical talents as an actor enable him to be both clown and menace. Sometime he’s as smooth as a Pierrot, but there’s always a cold stare behind his playfulness.

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Ernst gives the world of the Kit Kat Klub a sure power boost, but it’s already firing on all cylinders. Taking a cue from Mendes (and director John Doyle’s recent innovations with Sondheim musicals), everyone in the chorus sings, dances and plays in the orchestra. And thanks to Music Director Dan Kazemi and Sound Designer Nick Kourtides, the show sounds terrific. The double-duty casting also allows Clements to create fluid scene changes and dramatic compositions, since a saxophone player can wander through a transition, or drape himself over a staircase during a solo. Clements and choreographer Michael Pink make the Kit Kat Klub exactly what is should be: an environment of seductive energy – a place in which the audience has such a good time, the underlying moral questions sneak up slowly but relentlessly.  

But amid this high wattage, Cabaret still has a heart, the sweet courtship of Fraulein Schneider (Linda Stephens) and Herr Schultz (Jonathan Gillard Daly). It’s a challenge to make the simplicity of this story – a budding romance between two people in their twilight years – register against the loud and leather-clad backdrop of the Kit Kat Klub, but Stephens and Daly do it with heartbreaking charm.

The other romantic storyline – that of Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw –doesn’t fare as well. Kelley Faulkner has the pipes to sell the show’s signature and climactic song, but in her domestic scenes with Cliff, she seems to sink into the background, and her larger-than-life laissez faire, something crucial to the political message of the show, doesn’t register strongly. The same is true of Geoffrey Hemingway as Bradshaw, a particular problem since he’s the political conscience of the show. Clements gives the couple generous stage time, including “Don’t Go,” a song added to the ’87 revival. Here, it merely adds time to an already too-long first act.

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But those are quibbles in light of what is sure to be one of the Rep’s riskiest and splashiest moves in many a year. Clements not only has shown that a show like Cabaret can work on the Powerhouse Stage, he’s demonstrated that a show like Cabaret can and should be a part of the mission of a theater devoted to serious art. With so much interesting music theater work being done these days, it’s great to have another Milwaukee venue to bring it to life.
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