Kentucky Conservatory Theatre opened its Winterfest season Monday night with a wildly ambitious but deeply flawed production of Cabaret, the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical about Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic. Co-produced with Blackbird Dance Theatre, this show occupies the cavernous space at The Grand Reserve on Manchester Street, like a giant nightclub in-the-round.
Director Wesley Nelson and choreographer Jenny Fitzpatrick, who also plays chanteuse Sally Bowles, have boldly re-imagined this familiar show as a minimalistic postmodern dystopia, layering numerous anachronisms onto a plot firmly centered in the Nazi menace.
This directorial device works well to a point, but it is inconsistently deployed, so that when the play actually requires such specific props as a swastika armband or a brick with "Juden" scrawled on it, the audience's suspension of disbelief is betrayed. To mix in just a few period elements is jarring, especially since the garish costume design by Patrick Howell is a mash-up of very ugly clothes from all over the contemporary sartorial spectrum.
Some of Nelson's and Fitzpatrick's ideas are brilliant. They and the performers work very hard to make a tawdry nightclub out of the gigantic room throughout the whole evening, not just during the play itself. Even better, they have staged certain iconic numbers with fresh insights to telling effect. For example, the infamous Mein Herr, staged as a dance with caneback chairs in the movie, is presented here with the boys of the chorus as the inanimate props instead of chairs. Maybe This Time in the film is a song of rabid hope, but here is a melancholy, frozen-time thought in Sally's head. The best number of all in this production is Money, reinvented as a feral, frightening anthem for the Emcee (Robbie Morgan) and chorus rather than a tongue-in-cheek comic duet for Sally and the Emcee.
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On the other hand, portraying the title song as Sally's cocaine-induced freak-out rather than as a rosy-tinted paean to hedonism falsifies its intended message. Worse yet, by casting a woman as the Emcee, many of that character's lyrics and scenarios either lose their punch or simply make no sense. Both Fitzpatrick and Morgan invest lots of energy in their performances, the parameters of which seem misguided.
The performers' dancing is exciting and well staged, and the outstanding seven-piece band under the direction of Brittany Benningfield is the show's single best asset. However, this is a musical, and the singing is just awful. It is not the fault of competent sound engineer Jeff Watts: The performers themselves deliver every song with a strident, harsh tone, out-of-tune pitchiness, and mushy diction. Only two featured players offer anything like nuanced vocalism. Rick Wayman as the Jewish suitor Herr Schulz has a sweet, expressive voice to match his character, and Rachel Snyder as the streetwalker Fraulein Kost exhibits the best singing voice in the whole company.
Some of the actors actually speak their song lyrics out of time rather than singing them, like Shayne Brakefield as the writer Cliff Bradshaw, whose acting is nevertheless a centrifugal force of realism in this otherwise unfocused concept. Jesse V. Coffey as the landlady Fraulein Schneider, the role originated on Broadway by the legendary Lotte Lenya, has a hard time putting her songs across vocally (she sounded ill on opening night) and needed more direction in harnessing the character's complexities for the stage. Ty Medaris does a decent job as Nazi sympathizer Ernst Ludwig.
The attempted German and British accents are laughable at best. It would be better to have everyone speaking standard American English than this amateurish hodge-podge that limits credibility of the characters and intelligibility of the dialogue.
The impulse to reinterpret familiar stage classics can result in breathtaking theatre, and it's a shame that Nelson and Fitzpatrick's ideas did not fully gel for this production. They needed to thoroughly work the concept or stage a traditional production.
If you are interested in seeing a bold vision for Cabaret, it is worth going. But seriously, why do a musical if nobody can sing?