Extraordinary “Cabaret” at the University of Michigan (review)



The University of Michigan’s Musical Theater program in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance is generally known for producing the best local musical theater presentations. Every now and again, even they outdo themselves and their production of the revisal version of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret is one of those musicals.

Every aspect of this production is just right — from Joe Locarro’s direction and Ron De Jesus’s brilliant choreography, to Bruce Brockman’s outstanding set design (I’ve never seen the stage of the Lydia Mendelssohn so amazingly transformed) and Rob Murphy’s lighting design, and the great musical theater program student cast.

Taking the 1998 revisal and lightening it up a bit (the Broadway version is actually a bit darker, and certainly costumes its cast in much less) until the (heavy-handed but affecting) ending, the production has the audience engaged from opening note. My one regret is that the revisal cuts my favorite numbers from the original production: “Telephone Song” and “Why Should I Wake Up?” – though it does substitute the latter with the grimmer “I Don’t Care Much” later in the show.

Watching UM musical theater productions is a bit like watching a pre-Broadway tryout, since that is where many of these actors will end up, some sooner than others. I can’t imagine it will take long for this production’s Emcee, Mackenzie Orr, to land a role there. He is in a word, magnificent. I could not take my eyes off of him, whether he was performing one of his (many) numbers, or simply lounging about the Berlin-based cabaret set, watching, wordlessly witnessing a world disintegrating on the evenings just prior to one of humanities greatest human tragedies. What makes this musical work so well is that the audience knows how it ends, while watching and witnessing a group of people who have no idea what their future will (or will not) bring – and the suspense is palpable (and why the original production did not feel the need to tack on the ending later added to the revisal).

Isabelle McCalla is a beautiful Sally Bowles, and she is directed to play the part similarly to leading ladies on Broadway (think Michelle Williams, Natasha Richardson), somewhat subduing the original humor and sassiness of the part. Dylan Stasack plays Cliff Bradshaw with the bravado necessary to be one of the few people on stage who see where this world is heading; the other is Ellie Todd playing a wonderful Fraulein Schneider (she who understands that marrying a Jewish suitor, Kyle Timson as Herr Schultz, is not the correct choice at the time).  Brian Flores plays a dynamic Ernst Ludwig, growing from friendly English-student nebbish to something far far more menacing. The entire singing/acting/dancing cast is excellent.

Kudos to musical director/conductor Catherine A Walker for superb work with the diction and blend, and her spririted on-stage orchestra. Good work is also done by Jim Lillie in his sound design, where every word is audible, and every sound has meaning (where were you during Les Miserables last season, Mr Lillie?).

If you have seen Cabaret before in its reincarnated version, you will find it is all here, with a few added surprises. If you have only seen the original 1966 version or the 1972 film version, you’ll find this to be an altogether completely different experience, and if you have never seen the show, you are in the for biggest surprise of all. Cabaret made musical theater history when it opened on Broadway. To see it performed live-on-stage, where you become witness to a world spinning out of control while dancing and boozing the nights away, leaves you with a sense of something profound. When you see it performed this well, it becomes extraordinary.

Very Very highly recommended.

All tickets for Cabaret are sold out for the duration of its run. Cancellations, if any, might be available at the door, although expect a long line ahead of you.


%d bloggers like this: