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Theater Review: Littleton and Co. Perfectly Marvelous in ‘Cabaret’

Mein HerrI’m not sure life is a Cabaret, but I do think you need to get out of your room (or wherever you are) and see Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s remarkable production.

Those involved in bringing the Joe Masteroff/John Kander/Fred Ebb classic to throbbing life in the Johnson Theater black box have done a fine job capturing the largely dark, somewhat gritty and sometimes raunchy aspects of the 1998 revisions to the show that first hit Broadway in 1966. I saw the 1998 New York revival, and Tennessee Rep’s production mostly matches up quite nicely with my happy memories of that presentation.

I’m not saving the best for last – Jenny Littleton’s bravura performance as Sally Bowles is one of the best in her distinguished career. Yes, she was nominated for a prestigious Jeff Award for her critically-acclaimed work during Doyle and Debbie’s eight-month run in Chicago, but Nashville folks that have seen her in that show and others know she’s one of the most talented and versatile actors to grace our stages in many years.

Don't Tell MamaThere are a multitude of moments to which I can point that make me rave about Littleton’s performance – from Sally’s emotionally-charged dialogues with Clifford Bradshaw (played with an earnest sweetness by Patrick Waller) to putting the electricity into hellzapoppin’ renditions of “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time” she clearly conveys the joys and sorrows of her character’s existence. But it’s her delivery of the title song in Act II that I will remember as long as I can recall anything I’ve ever seen in a theater.

Her voice and body trembling, this “Cabaret” provides no jaded-but-jaunty tribute to a philosophy of life; Littleton’s Sally is a wounded animal that cannot mask her pain any longer, and that pain claws its way out of her until it pierces and thoroughly penetrates our ears, eyes, minds and hearts. I thought I’d never see a better take on that number, or on the character of Sally, than Natasha Richardson’s Tony Award-winning portrayal; at Saturday’s opening show I did. Thank you Ms. Littleton.

As the Emcee David Compton is a devilishly delicious delight. Costumer Trish Clark has outfitted him much as Alan Cumming was in that 1998 revival; suspenders but no shirt is the order of the day (along with rouged nipples) for his main look, although clothes for all occasions – and both genders – ultimately find their way onto his slender frame. The 51-year-old actor delivers high kicks that would challenge performers 30 years his junior, and creates an appropriately playful, sensual and mischievous mood from the start.

Two Ladies“Willkommen,” “Two Ladies” and “Money” with the Kit Kat Klub Girls (a strong outing for the undergarment-and-bruises-bedecked Elizabeth Claire Bailey, Mia Rose Ernst, Rosemary Fossee, Kristi Mason, Martha Wilkinson and Marin Miller) come off well under his guidance. His big moment, though, comes in Act II’s “If You Could See Her” when he utters a line that’s still stunning decades after it was scripted (and then dropped after protests during a Boston try-out) in the original production before being restored to the Cabaret canon through its use in the 1972 film version. Compton makes that statement – indictment might be a better description – as chilling and shocking as it deserves.

There’s some fine work from others in the ensemble that includes Mike Baum, Stephen Michael Jones, Caleb Marshall and Jeremy Maxwell. Of special note is their beautiful harmonic convergence on the first rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which is highlighted by Baum’s lovely high register. When that song is terrifyingly reprised it’s in the capable hands of Wilkinson as the prostitute Fräulein Kost and the smiling but nefarious Ernst Ludwig skillfully portrayed by B.J. Rowell.

Last but certainly not least in the acting department are the sublime performances turned in by Ruth Cordell (Fräulein Schneider) and Derek Whittaker (Herr Schultz). Their work together and apart as mature lovers doomed by the approaching specter of Nazi control is heart-rending; Cordell’s spirited delivery of “So What” near the top of the show is one of this production’s highlights, as are the lovely “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married” duets they pull off so gracefully.

WilkommenGary C. Hoff has produced another terrific set. It’s a technically sophisticated two-story backdrop with turntables stage left and stage right that allow us to go from the Kit Kat Klub (which continues offstage with some appropriately styled tables, complete with period telephones, in the front of the audience section) to Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house and elsewhere quite quickly; Hoff and his team have fashioned a dark, dilapidated look that’s in keeping with the “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” decadence that runs through this piece.

Clark’s costumes, Michael Barnett’s lights and Paul Carrol Binkley’s sound are all in good order; and conductor Binkley’s playing along with Mike Casteel, Larry Crew, Russell Davis, Mark Douthit, Antonia Ferguson, Barry Green and Bob Mater is excellent, though it might have been funny if the “beautiful” orchestra had worn wigs or found some other way to acknowledge the description of them given by the Emcee at the start (to be fair, Binkley was flamboyantly garbed Saturday night as he led the music upstage center). Choreographer Pam Atha is faithful to the movement principles established for the 1998 revival but her work isn’t some stale copy; as with her other dance designs for shows over the years there’s a vibrancy that makes every kick, turn and step quite fresh.

Producing Artistic Director René D. Copeland has certainly brought all the elements for an entertaining Cabaret together. I think it would have upped the fun to have even more interaction with the audience, though efforts are certainly made in that respect (particularly by Compton just before Act II begins). I know, though, that it’s not easy to do that and keep the show humming along.

Wilkommen FinishBut this Cabaret turns on the star power brought to it by a phenomenally gifted actor. Yes, this musical and the Christopher Isherwood stories that inspired it are great material with which to work, but to utterly own a part that has belonged to the likes of Liza Minnelli and Richardson as Littleton does in Tennessee Rep’s production is still an incredible feat.

Tennessee Repertory Theatre presents Cabaret through March 16 at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater (505 Deaderick St.). Performances are at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; there are 2:30 p.m. matinees Feb. 23, March 2, March 9 and March 16. Tickets (Starting at $42.50; for students with valid ID seats begin at $11.50) are available online here or by calling (615) 782-4040. Note: This show contains mature content and is not suitable for all ages.

 

*Photos by Britanie Knapp courtesy Tennessee Repertory Theatre.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).

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