Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Review/Rebuttal for Cabaret

A REVIEW OF Kentucky Conservatory Theatre's Production of CABARET!

Monday night I saw a really remarkable production of Cabaret! and I spent the next day thinking and reveling about it… and then puzzling and scowling over a misguided pan of it by the Herald-Leader’s contributing theater critic Tedrin Blair Lindsey.

I’ve seen Cabaret before, on stage and screen. It’s a masterpiece — a charming, gender-bending, song-and-dance-filled, poignant, shocking, provocative, horrifying masterpiece. Moreover — seeing Kentucky Conservatory Theatre’s production premiere is precisely what reminded me of these things because despite what Mr. Lindsey claims, the cast, crew, dancers and musicians absolutely owned it.

Which is why I’m left scratching my head over Tedrin Blair Lindsey’s misguided review of the show, which I think was the same show I saw, but I took away none — zero — of his complaints, digs or claims. In fact, I was absolutely captivated by the production, and the rest of the room seemed pretty captivated, too. We’re all entitled to our opinions, so … “Put down the knitting, the book and the broom,” here’s an audience member review to at least provide an alternate perspective to Mr. Lindsey’s sour take on it.

I’m not going to beef (too much) directly with the reviewer, and instead let me tell you why it was not “flawed,” as he said, but rather: GREAT.

First things first: I don’t know the producer. I don’t know the choreographer. I know one person in the cast. I might say I have no stake in this, but I DO — in the sense that I treasure Lexington as a creative community and as the chosen home for many gifted individuals and organizations. So, with that out of the way: What I saw on opening night was a triumph of space, movement, technology, voice — in short, it was great theater, which is exactly what I plunked down $35 to see. And community theater at that.

Because of KCT’s production, I’ve been thinking about Cabaret all day, both as a play (a “musical” if you must), a choreography (most famously in the movie version by Bob Fosse, which Mr. Lindsey seems kind of inappropriately concerned with, considering that KCT is neither making a movie nor trying to recreate one) and a repertory piece that towers high in the American stage canon. The reason I was thinking about Cabaret all day, not surprisingly is because Kentucky Conservatory Theatre (and their creative partners Blackbird Dance Theatre, let’s certainly not forget) did such an astounding job of presenting the dazzling, lacerating shards and facets contained in Cabaret, from first laugh to final stupefied silence … or tears, in many eyes, mine included.

As far as I’m concerned, talking about Cabaret as a venerable work of American theater and talking about the KCT’s production of it are the same thing, because that’s how much KCT got it and that’s how much they passed it on to the audience, at least at my table. And I didn’t see any less rapt faces when I looked around the room throughout the evening. It was riveting. It was funny, provocative, and exhilarating, and then it was sad, tragic and finally horrifying. It was all these things together because it was Cabaret, through and through.

Mr. Lindsey suggested that “Director Wesley Nelson and choreographer Jenny Fitzpatrick … have boldly re-imagined this familiar show.” That’s a brutal, backhanded compliment in a deeply demeaning review, and I couldn’t disagree more. This isn’t Broadway, and it’s not Bob Fosse’s movie. It’s Cabaret, the play, which takes place in a nightclub. Which we, the audience, are in. Having dinner, in fact (a tasty German-themed meal, kudos on that, too, to the Grand Reserve wait staff). So, “re-imagined?” Bah. The staging of Cabaret is simple and obvious. A play that revolves around a nightclub that is staged … in a nightclub. And Nelson and Fitzpatrick staged their production brilliantly but in a completely “familiar” way. Kudos for economy and creativity to them both.

I don’t think Cabaret is easy to pull off but I think that KCT succeeds not just adequately but astoundingly, and that’s where I must take enormous issue with Mr. Lindsey and his claim of it being “deeply flawed.”

It’s gender bending and it’s tawdry and it’s so much fun. Ms. Fitzpatrick’s turn as Sally Bowles displayed the famous character as maybe the original “hot mess,” (as the kids are wont to say, almost 50 years later). It’s about human connection and that is plainly seen by the performances turned in by Rick Wayman and Jesse V. Coffey as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, as their September romance moves from sweet and strangely innocent to star-crossed and doomed. Coffey’s rendition of “What Would You Do?” had me crying in my gin. How could anybody not see that as great? This is why I keep saying “misguided.”

And misguided in the extreme is Mr. Lindsey’s beef with the gender of the Emcee. How could somebody presuming to critique (community) theatre not understand that the emcee of Cabaret can be a male or a female — that the very murkiness of gender is what makes the emcee the soul and conscience of the story? To be distracted because Robbie Morgan (who slays in the role, btw) isn’t Joel Gray is inexplicably shortsighted. To claim that Morgan wasn’t captivating makes me wonder if we saw the same show.

To become hung up on the dialects of Germans and Brits … why? I can’t think of anything less significant to the core of Cabaret. What a waste of time to point that out. It was certainly nothing I noticed. It's like saying Bob Dylan is a bad singer.

Why not talk, instead about the commendable job that KCT’s Cabaret so incredibly tickled and jiggled (fondled, even) the audience into accepting that we’re all just people — people trying to be happy and to live with the madness of the world. And then once that’s accomplished in act one, the second act comes along to stomp and burn it all down. And why do I think this? Because, again, KCT did such a spectacular job of helping my brain and heart along to see this dichotomy, the charm, the horror. By choosing to stage Cabaret. By brilliantly transforming a party rental hall into a seedy dark-cornered nightclub.

To dis KCT’s production of Cabaret is to not really understand Cabaret, I think. Because KCT knocked it out of the park, from the first jaunty horn riff to the final stage door (the stark antithesis of the one in The Sound of Music). I was delighted by the evening that KCT made for me last night. And that’s why I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

If you’re looking to laugh and love life — and very possibly cry, I can’t recommend Kentucky Conservatory Theater’s production of Cabaret highly enough. As the Emcee says — “In here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful!” (At least, in the first act)

My final note to Mr. Lindsey: Take it easy on community theater. This isn’t New York, but maybe you’d like to review Broadway shows with the kind of sharp pen you used to lacerate Cabaret. If so, I wish you luck getting that gig. You’ll likely be at the end of a long line, possibly filled with more observant — and kinder — critics than yourself.

Until you land that big city gig, I’d ask that you keep scale in proportion please, sir. These are people with day jobs and a passion — people who work hard to support that passion; and we get to share it for a precious couple of hours. They may not always be great at it, but, from the table where I sat, the cast and crew of Kentucky Conservatory Theater’s Cabaret also happened to be pretty damned GREAT at it. Maybe you were seated behind a column. I can find no other explanation for your misguided words.