Porchlight invites audiences into the glittering, gritty world of early 1930s Berlin with John Kander and Fred Ebb’s iconic musical CABARET. Under the direction of Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber and with associate direction and choreography by Brenda Didier, this production largely belongs to Erica Stephan in the role of Sally Bowles. As the seductive and desperate nightclub singer, Sally, Stephan is an absolute dream. She not only plays the character’s arc beautifully, moving from artful seduction to total desperation and panic by the show’s end, but she showcases her powerful belt and vocal control in each of Sally’s solo numbers. In this way, Porchlight’s production mirrors Sally’s character arc; as the other characters in the show are awakened to the realities of the Nazi party’s rise to power, they must contend with the fact that life is not, in fact, a cabaret.
Stephan’s powerful performance anchors this CABARET, aided by Gilbert Domally as the affable American and aspiring novelist Clifford Bradshaw. While Cliff isn’t a hefty role on paper, Domally makes him immensely likable and convincingly naive—and he makes the most of Cliff’s bit singing parts. In CABARET’s other pivotal role of the Emcee, Josh Walker gives an entertaining performance. Walker’s take on the Emcee lends a playful and raunchy ringmaster quality to the role. Instead of becoming an overarching narrator, Walker’s Emcee guides the Kit Kat Klub Girls and Boys through the show’s nightclub scenes as if presiding over a circus. He’s also a capable singer. The ensemble shines when performing Didier’s choreography, and the cast is an incredibly flexible and agile group. I was particularly delighted by Shaun White as Bobby; he has superb timing for his line deliveries in Joe Masteroff’s book, and he has a stellar voice. Neala Barron, always welcome on any Chicago stage, is also fantastic as Fraulein “Fritzi” Kost, a resident at Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house.
The show’s secondary couple, the older Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, are a particularly pivotal part of this production. Mary Robin Roth is sublime as Fraulein Schneider, and she’s a great, belty singer. Mark David Kaplan is magnificently sweet and earnest as Herr Schultz. It’s easy to say that Roth and Kaplan’s rendition of “It Couldn’t Please Me More” couldn’t please me more. The rapport these two actors share makes it all the more sad and unsettling when Ernst Ludwig (Josiah Haugen, convincingly creepy) warns Fraulein Schneider against marrying the Herr Schultz, who is Jewish. While Sally longs to live in a state of denial and pretend the world around her isn’t changing, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz must come to stark terms with that reality.
Since I first saw CABARET on stage for the first time in 2014, I’ve been entirely convinced that it’s a master-class musical, and one that especially embodies how musical theater can tackle the most serious of subjects. Likewise, writing a musical set in Berlin as the Nazis rise to power could have gone wrong in many ways, but Kander, Ebb, and Masteroff gave us a spectacular piece of writing. That said, some directorial decisions in Porchlight’s production don’t quite fit. In particular, I thought the choice to replace the dancing gorilla in “If You Could See Her” with a mouse was illogical. That’s an immensely challenging number to stage, but Kander and Ebb wanted to simulate for audiences exactly what many German audiences would have been laughing at in a cabaret in 1930. It’s uncomfortable and offensive as originally written, but it’s meant to be so. Likewise, Porchlight’s production showcases the 1998 stage version of CABARET, but it pulls in the original 1966 finale. This includes a partial revival of the title song, among other elements. Substituting in this iteration of the finale doesn’t solve the problem that CABARET, while a genius musical, has an abrupt ending in both versions.
It’s clear this CABARET belongs to Stephan’s Sally. She’s a knockout on all of Sally’s solo numbers, “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr,” and “Maybe This Time,” but it’s her rendition of the show’s title song that seals it. Stephan performs the song convincingly inebriated and manic; her Sally is hanging by a thread as she clings to some last semblance of pleasure and escape. Likewise, Stephan allows her vocal performance to build so she’s full-on belting by the end of the song. The vocal build mirrors Sally’s increasingly heightened emotional state. In this way, Stephan’s “Cabaret” comes to embody the show as a whole—we can only hold onto the fun for so long before we must accept the harsh realities of the changing, cruel world around us.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s CABARET runs through March 5, 2023 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets are $25-$77.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com