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Two for one: (l-r) McGrath, Whitton and Ford in HMT’s Cabaret.

Don’t Tell Mama
By Kathy Ceceri

Cabaret
Book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, directed by Steve Coats
Home Made Theatre, through Oct. 31

Cabaret, the 1966 musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s stories of an English songstress in a seamy Berlin café just before the rise of the Nazis, really became a hit when it was reconceived for the movies by director-choreographer Bob Fosse in 1972 (with an expanded role for Joel Grey as the Emcee and a breakout performance by Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles). Then, in the mid-’90s, it was reconceived again for Broadway. This time, reviewers said Natasha Richardson was a less talented, more vulnerable Sally, and Alan Cummings an even more sinister and controlling Emcee.

When I heard that the very talented Jonathan Whitton, a Skidmore alumnus, was choreographing and starring in Home Made Theatre’s production, I figured I’d finally get a chance to see some of what I missed with the recent revival and compare it to the film, one of my favorites. What I discovered is that the timing of the Broadway revival, coming at the tail end of this country’s last period of peace and wild prosperity, may have been more prescient than anyone realized. (“Sally, wake up,” she’s told. “The party in Berlin is over.”) Here in the midst of war and uncertainty, it feels almost indulgent to revel in Cabaret’s bawdiness, to think back to a time when we didn’t know what terrors lay ahead.

And this Cabaret doesn’t pull any punches. The Kit Kat Club dancers don’t suggest what they’re offering; they show it. It’s lucky this is legitimate theater, because Saratoga Springs isn’t normally this risque. (Schenectady would close this show right down.) Add Whitton’s stamping, pounding choreography, as much jackboot as burlesque, and the approaching menace becomes very real. Grafted onto this dark vision is a typical Broadway musical story of a young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw, drifting around Europe waiting for inspiration, who becomes entangled with the anything-to-shock Bowles; and an even more traditional comic subplot involving the courtship of Bradshaw’s spinster landlady and another boarder, an elderly fruitseller (Lotte Lenya and Jack Gifford in the original). The result is a wild ride for the audience, which has to keep switching between world-weary sophistication and maudlin sentimentality just to keep up.

Along with the high-energy Whitton and crew, who went all out with numbers like “M-O-N-E-Y” and “If You Could See Her,” Amelia Wargo as Sally and AJ Rendo as Cliff are a pleasure to watch. Wargo’s accent may have been more old Hollywood movie star than British, but her singing was marvelous, and Rendo’s voice wasn’t bad either. As Fraulein Schneider, Robin Leary got some of the best numbers in the show—“So What?” and “What Would You Do?”—and used them to bring out the landlady’s likable pragmatism. Ron Delucia’s Herr Schultz was also appealing, but his lack of a singing voice could have been turned to more humorous effect à la Gifford, the old Cracker Jack TV pitchman.

An unexpected treat was Jeremy Buechner as Ernst Ludwig, who befriends Cliff but saves his own secret for the end. And Dawn Oesch as Fraulein Kost, the “patriot” who is only doing her duty being kind to all those sailors, is both funny and scary at the same time. The Kit Kat Klub boys and girls certainly deserve mention, especially the soloist on “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” (But do their mothers know what they’re doing?) Given the great songs of Kander and Ebb, Douglas Bishoff’s onstage band could have been more precise, but all in all, HMT’s Cabaret makes for a rewarding, if exhausting, evening.


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