The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

The Hypocrites' Cabaret Leaves Us Feeling Conflicted

By Julienne Bilker in Arts & Entertainment on May 4, 2010 8:20PM

Lindsay Leopold (foreground center), Jessie Fischer (background center) and the Cabaret cast, photo by John W. Sisson Jr
Cabaret, which features one of John Kander and Fred Ebb's most famous scores, is one of our favorite shows. If you've never seen it, you should - and The Hypocrites will give you a good intro. However, if you're familiar with the show, you should know that this version has some fairly bold choices you might not love - most of which we thought worked. The choices we didn't like weren't enough to overshadow the ones we did, nevertheless, we left with mixed feelings.

Based on the 1951 John Van Druten play I Am A Camera and its subsequent novel adaptation ("Goodbye to Berlin" by Christopher Isherwood), Cabaret is set in 1931 Berlin during the Nazi ascent to power. American writer Cliff Bradshaw has come to Berlin in hopes of finding inspiration for his novel, and instead (or in addition) finds Brit Sally Bowles, the headliner at the Kit Kat Club. A seedy, local cabaret, the Kit Kat Club serves as a metaphor for Berlin itself: one moment the biggest bacchanal in town, closed off from reality - the next, crumbling under the weight of political pressure (to put it mildly).

While director Matt Hawkins' most apparent diversion from the norm is casting the Emcee as a woman (Jessie Fisher), it's actually the least jarring. The Emcee is fairly androgynous, and, as is the case with almost every character, his/her sexuality is, shall we say, fluid. Fisher's voice sits well in a low range, and she does some pretty great work - we loved her "I Don't Care Much," sung as an act of resistance here as opposed to an admission of defeat. What IS jarring is that in this version, the Emcee has a son (Kyle Erkonen), who is (we're guessing) somewhere between 8 and 10 years old. At first we thought he was bound to be the catalyst for cheap emotional manipulation, but he is used judiciously, occasionally appearing as a comical addition to a cabaret act, and singing what is, ironically, perhaps the most beautiful song in the show: Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" (usually performed via recording of a young boy). Most importantly, he becomes integral in the show's ending - some of you might catch a whiff of that emotional manipulation we just mentioned, but we thought it was a strong statement.

Another good addition to this production is a Cliff Bradshaw (Michael Peters) who can actually sing. Cliff's songs can easily be half-spoken, as we've seen in other productions, but Peters has a sweet voice that is nicely showcased. As Sally Bowles, Lindsay Leopold also has plenty of opportunity to showcase her strong chords. And legs. And abs. get the point. Although we thought Alison Siple's costuming was fun (particularly for the Emcee in "The Money Song" - a dress constructed entirely of over-sized cash) and stylistically on-target overall, we had an issue with Sally never wearing real clothes. Ever. It's hard to take someone seriously when they're not wearing pants - which we suppose could be the point, but the fact that Sally is forever stuck in her cabaret lifestyle should be apparent from her acting. But we digress.

More problematic than Sally's wardrobe is a lack of dimension. Leopold plays her as a cokehead party-girl, which is fine, but that's all she is. Without depth, the show becomes more about the political environment than the people living in it, leaving the audience just a bit too far outside the story. Even one of our favorite songs in musical theatre - period - lacked dramatic punch. We've had several debates over the years as to whether or not "Maybe This Time" is a positive song, and we've always come down on the negative side. Sally is a hot mess who will never pull herself out of her destructive cycle. She may talk a big game about her future, but she knows it won't ever happen. Despite being arguably the most introspective moment Sally has in the show, it's sung to/for the audience. The vocals are there - but emotionally, it's a missed opportunity. Although Leopold's frantic energy works well for her in her last number, "Cabaret," it isn't much of a contrast with the rest of her performance.

Of everyone in the show, we had the strongest emotional connection to Herr Schultz (Jim Heatherly), an older Jewish man in love with Fraulein Schneider (Kate Harris), the proprietor of the house where Cliff has a rented room, who thinks she is too old for romance or marriage. It is at their engagement party that everyone realizes the pervasiveness of the Nazi movement, and the subsequent dissolution of their relationship is heartbreaking. As the lone representative of the German Jewish population, Heatherly is sweetly subtle. Harris also delivers a strong performance - although her voice is hit-or-miss, we're chalking that up to a suspicion that she was under the weather.

In fact, the entire cast is strong. A good ensemble is absolutely necessary in this show, and this talented group commits to every second of Marissa Mortiz's joyfully raunchy choreography. Although we appreciated Mortiz's complete departure from the show's historically Bob Fosse-style - dance-wise, there's little we hate more than bad imitation Fosse - we did think some of her movement erred on the modern side. Fun, strong and sexy, but modern.

There were also a few musical moments that felt too contemporary for our taste. Musical director Mike Przygoda has reorchestrated a few numbers, such as "Perfectly Marvelous," for the acoustic guitar. Although we understood the idea of creating a more intimate atmosphere within a large space (Marianna Csaszar's set is a circular platform in the center of an open room with exposed concrete walls and catwalks), the reworked songs sounded more Jack Johnson than Kander and Ebb. That being said, Przygoda's band is great.

As we said at the start, whatever issues we had weren't enough to hijack the production. We're hardest on the plays we love the most. Particularly if you've never seen it before, this Cabaret is an entertaining and solid show worth checking out.

Cabaret, through May 23. The Hypocrites at DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. Tickets $15 (students/seniors) or $25.