BrightSide Theatre’s CABARET – One for the Record Books

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REVIEWED BY: JAMES MURRAY

The Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret, today hardly needs any introduction.  It is currently in its 3rd revival on Broadway and we have seen several productions in or around Chicago in the last 2 years.  However, speaking as one who has not only performed in the show but has seen many productions of it (including the final tour with Joel Grey who created the role originally, won numerous awards and was in the film) there is a stellar production of it going on in Naperville, Illinois at a newly formed, professional theatre company (the only one in Naperville) called BrightSide Theatre.

I will admit that I often cringe when going to see a production of this iconic and often badly directed musical.  This was not the case for me because I have known and admired the work of Artistic Director and Director of this Cabaret, Jeffrey Cass, since his Circle Theatre days.  Jeffrey is a director of great depth and detail who weaves moments together into a tapestry of emotion, beauty and power and pays as much attention to the book as he does to the music and dancing.  He also understands the importance of creating the world of the play which many directors miss.

Upon arriving in the theatre space one is greeted by the Kit Kat girls and boys who carry on conversations with you and warm you up for what is to come.  This has been done in numerous productions and, only rarely, really works.  For me it works best in a true cabaret setting with tables, dim lighting and smoke.  In BrightSide’s production the space does not lend itself to establishing the correct mood of a Cabaret until the lights dim and the show begins.

807However when the Emcee appears (David Geinosky in a tour de force Alan Cumming inspired performance, though SO much better than Cumming) this show takes off like a rocket and we are thrust into the 1929 seedy and increasingly dangerous pre-World War II Berlin.

Geinosky, whose impressive credits include the 1st national tour of The Wizard of Oz, is a sensational showman, actor, singer and dancer with a charisma and stage presence that blows the roof off of the theatre. From his first moment I knew we were in good hands.  Every moment of his on stage I believed that this Emcee was German and menacing. However he possesses such charm and charisma that took you off of the real scent for the moment and dazzled you.  His last moment in the finale was horrific and shocking to me, even though I have seen it done before and knew it was coming.  You could hear a pin drop in the theatre.

Jillian Weingart’s Sally Bowles (an uncanny resemblance to a young Joan Collins) likewise is a tour de force.  She brings just the right mix to this iconic character (which the phenomenal Liza Minnelli did not).  She is an actress of great mystery and depth who understands exactly who she is playing; an impetuous, second rate Brit performer with an addictive personality and a fear of intimacy.  She nails “Don’t Tell Mama” and firmly establishes her character at that moment.  The usual trap in casting this role is that you either have a strong singer OR actress; in Weingart you get both with a voice that is just raw enough to be second rate.  Her strongest acting moment is when she comes in without her prized fur coat and tells Cliff (an honest performance by Jonas Davidow) her boyfriend at the time, that she aborted his baby.  Although I have seen this scenes dozens of times this is the first time I felt the full weight of it.  I also applaud that choice to have Cliff actually slap her instead of faking it.

The secondary characters, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are beautifully played by Patricia Deckert and Jim Heatherly (who I have seen in the role of Schultz before but never moved me as in this production).  They have a strong chemistry with one another and capture the tragedy of older people whose world is vanishing before their eyes and who are forced to make impossible choices.

Heatherly’s love song “Married” (one of the most gorgeous love songs in the history of musical theatre) is touching and heartfelt. You are deeply moved when Fraulein Schneider breaks off their engagement after being threatened at the engagement party by Ernst Ludwig, (chillingly played by Tony Lage).  The look in Heatherly’s eyes is heartbreaking.  He overplayed this role in the other production I saw him in but struck just the right balance of naturalism and showmanship it requires.

Patricia Deckert moved me to tears (honestly) with her rendition of “What Would you Do?”  She is an actress of complete honesty (truly rare to see) in her moments, fragility and level of detail and nuance to her performance that I have not seen in this role before.  Her moments had moments.  It is the most magnificent portrayal I have seen of Fraulein Schneider.

The only faults I found in this production was the lack of consistency with the accents (particularly with substituting “v” for “w”) and the use of plastic champagne glasses painted to look like they have liquid in them.  All other props have weight and dimension and we are momentarily thrown out of the world of the play.  Though there is much detail in Cass’ production these two we overlooked and broke the spell momentarily of where we were.  Once you begin with detail you cannot miss one.

I also like most of the revisions to the book and score of the 1998 Broadway revival.  Cass was clever in adding some stage business that has always been lacking that closes a major gap in the story.  During the “Money” song he has Ernst giving Cliff a suitcase that he then passes on to other men on the opposite side of the stage, showing the transfer of important documents to the Nazi party.

Another marvelous moment was when a beautiful young Aryan-looking boy (and angelically pure Chris Knudsen) comes onstage alone and sings the haunting “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” while the Emcee helps him change his clothes, transforming him into a brown shirt of the Nazi party.  I am not sure if this was another great choice by Cass or not but I have not seen it in any other production that I can remember;  it was another chilling moment.

The choreography by Jeni Donahue and technique of the Kit Kat girls and boys, once again was outstanding.  They danced with precision and abandon (difficult to achieve) and gave the show an ease and polish.  They played, as the entire company did, as a true ensemble and you could feel the love they have for one another which permeates the room (the cast received a well-deserved, roaring standing ovation at the end).

The use of space by the Set and Lighting Designer Jarrod Bainter is commendable.  The performance venue is not friendly to fully staged musical theatre and Cass and Bainter handle the scene transitions in a clever and theatrical manner (although it adds an extra 10 minutes to the first act through no fault of their own).  Every inch of the space is fully and creatively, utilized.

Music Director Oliver Townsend does a superb job with the band.  The performance that I saw the trumpet player was having major issues which marred some of the softer songs which proved distracting.  But, that aside, they provided the right sound for Cabaret.

Artistic Director Jeffrey Cass and Executive Director and Co-Founder Julie Ann Kornak have created a theatre company that I feel will become a force in the western Suburbs.  Only in their third season they bring a level of quality and honesty in their work that sets them apart from competitors and outshines many of the Chicago-style in your face musical theatre companies whose primary aim is usually to shock and make a name for the company.  They understand the art of honest storytelling combined with stagecraft and attention to detail, telling important stories with honesty, beauty and love; truly a powerful combination.  BrightSide Theatre is worth the drive to Naperville and this Cabaret should not be missed!

BrightSide Theatre’s CABARET runs Friday – Sunday, June 27-29th.  Tickets may be purchased by calling their box office at 630-447-8497. For more information visit brightsidetheatre.com