Encore Michigan

JET comes up big with ‘Cabaret’

Review October 13, 2019 Amy J. Parrent

WALLED LAKE, Mich.–When you’re already familiar with Cabaret, but haven’t seen it recently, you forget how much of the story seems to be simply about a few people sharing a boarding house, and two couple falling in love.

Yes, it is Berlin in the early 1930’s, so we have the foreknowledge the characters don’t have. But the show, now in a sparkling production at the JET Theatre in Walled Lake, all begins so innocently. (And yes, a story that begins at the Kit Kat Klub is innocent.)

There is Cliff (Connor Allston), the American traveling from European capitol to capitol, not writing a novel. There is the enigmatic, narcissistic, complicated Brit, Sally Bowles (Mackenzie Conn), a club entertainer he becomes enamored with – though we soon learn he’d also had a fling with another Kit Kat performer, Bobby (Jake B. Rydell), back in London. Cliff’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Julia Glander), is being wooed by another boarder, Herr Schultz (Greg Trzaskoma). (Those who’ve seen only the film version will recall the second couple is portrayed differently there, as is their entire storyline.)

The budding relationships of these two couples are intertwined with performances by the mysterious Emcee and the other Kit Kat Klub entertainers, which become increasingly a reflection/ commentary of the story. But only at the end of the act are we hit full force with the specter that has been lurking in the background, when two supporting characters who’ve been almost light-hearted comic relief reveal their true passion.

One of them flings off a coat at a party to reveal swastika armband, about as startling the sight as a MAGA hat at a Pride parade. He and the second character, she in a blood-red dress, waltz to the “patriotic” (read fascist) “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” gradually goading all but a few partygoers into singing the anthem in a chilling act finale. (So eerie that it feels awkward to applaud at the end.) From there on, the personal relationships of the four leads will be intertwined and poisoned by the madness growing around them. 

Director Christopher Bremer (who also appears as Max, the club’s owner) has assembled a fine cast, each throwing themselves full force into this powerful, entertaining and moving musical. Bello Pizzimenti is a charismatic Emcee, slinking across the stage in songs both bawdy and politically pointed. (Even when you know the “punchline” of “If You Could See Her,” the tender love song to a sweet gorilla is a gut punch.)

This production, based upon more recent versions of the show, offers new interpretations to the Emcee. He can be seen as more than just the club entertainer, more even than a general symbol of crazed Berlin, almost a Svengali invisibly controlling the other characters, until an end where he himself also has no control.

Conn pulls off Sally’s Brit accent and brittle personality, bringing as much pathos as pizzazz to the would-be star. Allston finds the right combination of intensity and confusion for Cliff, while also revealing a fine singing voice. Julia Glander brings stage presence and fine singing to Fraulein Schneider, a woman who’s had to be so strong for so long that vulnerability frightens her. Greg Trzaskoma is touching as the sweet, warm-hearted, but all too naïve, Herr Schultz, and his beautiful baritone is a standout sound.

The supporting cast are all wonderful, including Meredith Deighton as boarder Fraulein Kost (and the Kit Kat’s Fritzie), and Tim Stone as Ernst, the German who first befriends Cliff. The Kit Kat “boys and girls” – Elizabeth Kurkowski, Sara Kmiec, Claire Lord, Anna Ventura, Mariel Zmarzly and Grant Cleaveland, along with Rydell – make the club numbers glitter, thanks to Debbie Williams sparkling sharp choreography. (By the way, be prepared to chit-chat with the Kit Kat boys and girls at your club table pre-show, as they offer you a selection of wein und bier, inquire where you’re from, offer to pose for pictures, and improv little stories about each other.) 

Musical director/pianist Stacy White is onstage all evening, practically a one-woman band at times, joined sometimes by chorus performers on a few instruments. The small group is fine, although I occasionally wished for a heftier ensemble.

Neil Koivu’s lighting design, Mary Cophenhagen’s costumes and Stephanie Baugher’s set contribute to the atmosphere of both the gaudy nightclub and boarding house.

The original “Cabaret,” with book by Joe Masteroff (based on works by Christopher Isherwood and John Van Druten), music by Fred Ebb and lyrics by John Kander, debuted in the 1960s. Those of us who’ve lived through the half a century since, know the story is always the same.  Our sexual attractions and confusions, our love and our fears, our desires to succeed, are the same. And the world swirling around us is unfortunately, is also the same – an ongoing struggle between bigotry and acceptance, where we ask, as the Emcee does, “Why can’t the world leben und leben lassen – live, and let live.”

Week of 11/18/2019

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