Sunday, May 6, 2012


American musicals from the second half of the 20th century tend to have a dark side to them: think Oklahoma and Carousel, to name just two. But the epitome of them all is Kander and Ebb's groundbreaking Cabaret, which tackle the rise of Nazism in post World War I Germany. We may warble along lustily to the penultimate eponymous number, "Cabaret," but life sure isn't a party to most of the characters who populate this show.

Once again, the Chatham Community Players show us why they consistently win awards for their efforts, producing a cutting edge version of Cabaret that is quite unlike the film (which most people have seen) and more like the raunchy 1996 revival that featured Alan Cumming as the Emcee at Studio 54 some years back.

These talented folks have pulled out all the stops this time round, never flinching at a leer, a raised middle finger, a homosexual kiss, which is as it should be, for the years between the two wars were an era in Germany of high inflation, great debauchery and a growing need to blame it all on this case, the Jews.

Cliff and Sally1Based on a book of stories by Christopher Isherwood and dramatized as I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, Cabaret focuses on the adventures of American-born would-be novelist Cliff Bradshaw (right) who has come to 1931 Berlin after stints in London and Paris in search of a place to write and events to inspire his novel. On the train, he meets a smuggler named Ernst Ludwig who fixes him up with lodgings and whisks him off to the most popular club in the city, The Kit Kat Club, where the girls and guys are tough as nails, the liquor flows freely and everybody has fun. There he meets an Englishwoman named Sally Bowles (left), the "star" of the show, who immediately moves into his tiny rented room. Despite Cliff's homosexuality, the two begin an affair that ends in complications and betrayal. Along the way, we meet the denizens of Fraulein Schneider's rooming house and follow parallel story of the aging spinster's romance with the Jewish fruit vendor, Herr Schultz, which also ends in disappointment and treachery.

Emcee and the Kit Kat GirlsFirst off, I'd like to give a standing ovation to the Musical Director Jill Finnerty and Choreographer Megan Ferentinos who have given this musically driven show so much pizzazz. The chorus performs complex choreography with agility, grace and an in-your-face vulgarity (often coming into the audience to sit on laps or leer rudely) appropriate to the immorality of Weimar Germany. Finnerty's Kit Kat Girls Orchestra is suitably tinny and cheap sounding, too. Bob Lukasik's set design extends the stage with platforms at the sides and across the top, with spiral staircases and two poles down which the girls and guys slide! And scene changes are effected smoothly and effortlessly (and quietly) by chorus members who sit at tables ringing the playing area during the action. One is barely aware that furniture is being moved on and off! (Above: L-R) Natalee Phemsint from Secaucus as Rosie, Sky Spiegel from Morristown as Lulu, Raven Dunbar from South Brunswick as Fritzie, Pam Mueller from Princeton as Helga, John Sechrist from New York City as The Emcee, Michal Efron from Summit as Frenchie and Shawna Schopper from Andover as Texas)

Emcee - John SAs for the performances, they too are top-notch! Director Jeffrey Fiorello keeps things cooking along at a good pace; the two hours fly by but never feel rushed. He has gathered a cast talented at every level, from a Kit Kat girl/boy to the four lovers to the seemingly ever-present Emcee. Eschewing the white face of the latter worn by Joel Grey, John Sechrist (left) projects an air of malevolence merely with a facial expression, a lick of the lips, a wink of an eye. It's Sechrist's Emcee that really drives the play; you can't take your eyes off him in "Two Ladies," "Money" and "If You Could See Her." He's depravity personified. (If you saw him as Molina in South Mountain Theater Works' Kiss of the Spider Woman, you'll know what I mean.)

Matching his performance in strength is Pat Wry as Fraulein Schneider with her commanding stage presence and vibrant voice. Her wry delivery (forgive the pun) of "So What?" conveys a spinsterish world weariness, but her delight at being loved is in full bloom in the duets with Herr Schultz, played with aplomb by Steven Nitka. With his sad face, Nitka communicates his disappointment with Fraulein Schneider's ultimate rejection of his proposal very well. Our hearts break for this man who has no options left.

Sally Bowles ChairKatherine LeFevre's Sally Bowles (left) may not look like Liza Minelli, but she conveys a barely talented, wild young woman constantly seeking the next big thrill. Her vulnerability comes through in "Maybe This Time (I'll be Lucky)" and her disenchantment is evident in a shaky rendition of "Cabaret." A beautiful young woman with a lovely voice, she's very appealing. As Cliff Bradshaw, Steve Sharkey's performance is so low key at the beginning as to be easily dismissed, but he finds his groove in the showdown with Sally and his realization that the Germany he thought he was visiting is a far cry from the reality of Brown Shirted thugs. And finally, Stacey Petricha as the "friendly" Fraulein Kost is to be applauded for her splendid performance—just the right blend of lightness, lustiness and, ultimately, an incipient evil that becomes full blown when she leads most of the cast in the Nazi-like anthem, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." She's the embodiment of Germany during the Weimar era.

Far from being a mindless musical, Cabaret is a thought-provoking piece of theater about the dangers that lurk in our midst. The country of Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller, Germany was perhaps the most culturally advanced country in Europe, but that didn't stop folks from descending to the greatest depravity the modern world has known. Even worse than the perpetrators were the bystanders like self-involved Fraulein Schneider and Sally Bowles who let it happen without their lifting a finger. But Cabaret is testament to the power of musical theater to go beyond sunny chorus girls and silly lyrics. And the Chatham Community Players has done justice to its content and production values. Don't miss this show. Opening weekend was sold out.

Cabaret will be performed at the Chatham Community Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Avenue, Chatham, through May 19, Fridays and Saturday, May 13, at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. For information and tickets, call the box office at973.635.7363 or visit online at .

Photos by Howard Fischer.