Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cabaret (At the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario)

      Cabaret (At the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario)  {Book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on the play by John van Druten, and the stories by Christopher Isherwood} [D:Peter Hinton. Juan Chioran, Deborah Hay, Gray Powell, et al].
     I’ve seen the movie with Liza Minelli several times, and didn’t realise how much it differed from the musical (and presumably from the prior adaptations of Isherwood’s stories). The story here is minimal, in several senses of the word, and one of the effects is that the linkage between the scenes isn’t as strong as it should be. It’s clear from the director’s notes that this was the intention of the script writers, who wanted to highlight the contrasts between the private concerns of a handful of people and the growth of Nazi power. Thus the structure is more a series of tableaux than a sequence of scenes. To make this a successful production requires on the one hand that the tableaux themselves must be well staged and executed, and on the other that the bridges must be well acted. This production comes close, but doesn’t quite make it.
     The set is an assemblage of steel stairs and platforms resembling a tower like those imagined by the Futurists. Impressive to look at, and prompting some imaginative staging and choreography, but also confusing in that it was sometimes difficult to find the visual focus of a scene, especially (and oddly) those set in the Kit Kat club. Scenes set in places not amenable to climbing around were created by using portable bits and pieces and clever lighting to create, for example, the mood of a train at a Grenzkontrolle, or a grocery store. All very intriguing, but I don’t go to the theatre  to see the set, I go to see the play.
     The acting and singing were generally very good, the lighting was very well done, creating mood and atmosphere that supported the central vision of the play, the choreography was impressively uniform, and the music competently performed, if occasionally a bit too startling.
     As mentioned, the play suffers from a what I think is a misconceived attempt to present not so much a story as a commentary. See the nice people caught up and crushed by the Nazi juggernaut! See how their indifference to politics doesn’t spare them from its consequences! See how a dream becomes a delusion that destroys the dreamer! See how people cannot trust their love for each other to support them as the future descends on them!
     All well and good as themes, but the story must come first. Here it doesn’t.
     Nevertheless, the overall effect was quite powerful especially towards the end. We can only wish that Life is a cabaret, old chum, but oh, how much simpler life would be if it were truly so! **½

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