Scorching Hot “Cabaret” Sears Lasting Images Into The Brain As Stray Dog Defines The Musical

The Kit Kat Klub girls are indicative of what we're in store for in this wild production of "Cabaret" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

The Kit Kat Klub girls are indicative of what we’re in store for in this wild production of “Cabaret” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Everyone knows the Emcee in “Cabaret” is androgynous- an outside observer- but I must say, Stray Dog Theatre and Lavonne Byers have turned that concept inside out with their scathing yet effective take on the musical that is almost ready for it’s AARP card. A female Emcee- hm-m. Could it work? How would they handle things like the “Two Ladies” number? Could a female convey the pain and joy that simultaneously work in a pre-Hitler Berlin that so resembles the fall of the Roman Empire? Those questions and more are answered in a highly evocative show that spreads itself all over the Tower Grove Abbey space and the audience that inhabits it.

This one’s based on the 1998 revival (which in turn was based on the 1993 Donmar Warehouse production in London) that featured Alan Cumming and offered a much grittier look at the 1930 New Year celebration in Berlin when no one saw what was coming with the sudden surge in “brownshirts” invading their streets, clubs and homes. A young, American aspiring novelist thrusts himself into the scene and, despite his warnings to all those who would listen, they all preferred to accept life as it was- or appeared to be. He and the worldly-wise Emcee appear to be the only people aware of imminent chaos and disaster.

 

Paula Stoff Dean as Sally and Paul Cereghino as Cliff in Stray Dog's "Cabaret." Photo: John Lamb

Paula Stoff Dean as Sally and Paul Cereghino as Cliff in Stray Dog’s “Cabaret.” Photo: John Lamb

Before the show even starts, the young girls and boys of the Kit Kat Klub stroll through the audience welcoming everyone while oozing sensuality out of every pore (and a lot of pores are exposed). The first sight of Lavonne Byers as the Emcee is quite a shock. Short hair and angular features make her the perfect “host” for the evening as she “Wilkomens” us to the club. Distinctly female yet offering that same ambiguous manner that everyone from Joel Grey to Mr. Cumming has created over the years. She simply captures us from that moment on and never lets go as (with the first time I saw it with Joel Grey at the old American Theatre) she pops up unexpectedly throughout the evening and in musical numbers and takes us aback with her surreptitious yet abrupt intrusion into every character’s life in the show. It’s an amazing performance. And that “Two Ladies” number? Don’t worry, it’s a surprise, but handled cleverly by two ladies and a man- but maybe not how you’d expect.

Jan Niehoff and Ken Haller as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz in "Cabaret" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Jan Niehoff and Ken Haller as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz in “Cabaret” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Paula Stoff Dean is the lovable lunatic, Sally Bowles, who relishes shocking  people with her decadent lifestyle. Not only does she capture that devil-may-care attitude mixed with desperation but her singing voice is powerful enough to shake the rafters. Her version of the title number near show’s end is the most expressive and powerful rendition I think I’ve ever seen. As Cliff, the American writer who gets caught up in the whirling dervish world of Sally, Paul Cereghino gives him a life beyond the one normally portrayed. With only one song- a duet with Sally- and a bland character compared to the colorful people surrounding his life, he manages to make Cliff a viable part of the show and truly takes the role and runs with it. Michael Brightman is superb as the affable Ernst Ludwig who is all smiles and handshakes but soon reveals his political leanings which brings a whole new shade of grey to his character.

Emcee Lavonne Byers loudly proclaims "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" at the Kit Kat Klub in Stray Dog's "Cabaret." Photo: John Lamb

Emcee Lavonne Byers loudly proclaims “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” at the Kit Kat Klub in Stray Dog’s “Cabaret.” Photo: John Lamb

The elderly lovers, Cliff’s landlady Fraulein Schneider and her fruit vendor suitor, Herr Schultz are well played by Jan Niehoff and Ken Haller. Their duet, “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” is always a highlight of “Cabaret.” They do a clever bit trying to achieve harmony and finally get it “locked in” during the final phrase. Although her wig is a disaster and doesn’t help her achieve the proper age, it seems missteps with hair is the only recurring error I found in an otherwise flawless production. So many of the Kit Kat girls had hairstyles that would never have been seen in 1930’s Berlin. A delightful performance by Deborah Sharn as Fraulein Kost also shines and, since she is a powerful singer to boot, Director Justin Been has expanded her role to include a beautiful solo (German edition) of the classic “Married” number sung by Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. In addition, after a scratchy phonograph edition of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” she brings that number to life- which is usually performed by a young brownshirt in most productions. This one is no less chilling.

Lavonne Byers as the Emcee is supported by her "Two Ladies"- Jessica Tilghman and Michael Baird in "Cabaret" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Lavonne Byers as the Emcee is supported by her “Two Ladies”- Jessica Tilghman and Michael Baird in “Cabaret” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Keith Thompson rounds out the major cast as the Kit Kat Klub owner, Max, who uses and abuses Sally to no end. But the entire cast and chorus of performers at the club are outstanding. As I said, they roam the audience and even entertain before the show and at intermission and mingle as servers at certain points throughout the show. Rather than being a distraction, it seems natural as they attend the few small tables set up in front of the Stray Dog elevated stage and the runway set up for this show. The Zachary Sefaniak choreography emphasizes their talents with some very clever routines that fit right into the raunchier version that this show brings to us. In addition, Chris Petersen’s musical direction is right in tune with the proceedings with an extended band that brings that raw feel to the show as well.

Robert J. Lippert (Circle Award winner) brings the proper amount of decadence to the clever set and, combined with the smooth scene changes provided by members of the Kit Kat Klub, makes for a wonderful in character transition from one scene to the next (a definite highlight since I just saw a horrible example of how not to change scenery earlier in the week-end). Tyler Duenow’s lights are also a standout providing just the proper mood from moment to moment. The costume design of Alexandra Scibetta Quigley also makes a definite statement and fits in beautifully to complete the overall mood to the show.

Paula Stoff Dean sings the iconic title song during Stray Dog's "Cabaret." Photo: John Lamb

Paula Stoff Dean sings the iconic title song during Stray Dog’s “Cabaret.” Photo: John Lamb

Justin Been’s direction is beyond words. He has brought a whole new dimension to this classic show. From the bold choice of a woman Emcee to the powerful final scene, this show is packed with little gems that help define what the impending tragedy of this time in Europe was all about. Every movement, every line has a meaning. With no curtain call, the shocking finale leaves the audience stunned. Lights still up on stage, house light come up and people are still rooted to their seats. Some can’t believe what they’ve just experienced- others, perhaps, can’t believe (or won’t believe) the show is over. It’s not until Artistic Director of Stray Dog, Gary Bell, rolls up that iconic door that separates theatre space from lobby space that (the night I attended anyway) the audience members were finally shaken into their standing ovation.

This is one “Cabaret” and one show you can’t miss this year. Of course, the opening week-end was sold out and I expect that the rest of the run will be the same. I won’t be surprised if the run is extended or extra performances are added. Right now it’s scheduled to run through April 19th. Get in on what everyone is raving about by calling 314-865-1995 or contact them at straydogtheatre.org to get tickets or get more information.

 

 

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