Saturday, 26 July 2014

Cabaret, Canberra Philharmonic

Back to the slightly-chlorinated foyer of the Erindale theatre, and Phlharmonic's latest addition to the crowded schedule of Canberra musicals. And it's a goodie - Kander and Ebb's story of 1920s Berlin on the verge of historic disaster combines strong songs with a story of dramatic import.

Unfortunately, the version chosen for performance is the 1987 revision, not the one currently playing Broadway (nor is it the original version). Cabaret is one of those shows that has an iconic film version that doesn't completely resemble the show it's adapted from, meaning that subsequent revivals have tried to insert the songs from the film as much as possible. In this case, the revision also tried to plum up the romantic plotline between Cliff and Sally in ways that I don't quite think work - some gestures towards Cliff's bisexuality (given Christopher Isherwood, the historical analogue of Cliff, was exclusively gay), and an added song (since cut in subsequent revisions), "Don't Go". Unfortunately, there really isn't much to be done to make Cliff particularly interesting - he's better as an observer than as a dramatic participant, and his song is banal. Trying to expand his role only leads to the first act being a slightly butt-numbing 100 minutes - this desperately needs to be tighter than it is.

There's also one or two unfortunate directorial decisions - in particular, several of the songs are delivered in a flat, "stand and sing" style where the performers stay stuck to the spot in ways that feel un-natural - like the director hasn't gotten around to giving them any blocking. Ros Engledow's Frauline Schneider is a particular victim of this - both her solos suffer from cement-feet.

Central to any Cabaret is its Emcee, our somewhat untrustworthy guide through the world of 1920's Berlin. Angel Dolejsi delivers an intriguing angle on the character - less a satyr and more a clown, one who's slightly endearing, and who becomes during the course of the show more and more alienated from his surroundings and less convinced of the songs he's singing and jokes he's telling. It's a cleverly informed performance.

Kelly Roberts provides a Sally Bowles who is suitably fascinating, gossipy, funny, heartbreaking and exasperating - projecting both the outward confidence and her inward insecurity. Again, she's somewhat sabotaged by external elements - the combination of her costume and lighting at the beginning of "Mein Herr" do not show her off to best advantage (this isn't a costume made for silloutette), and her version of "Cabaret is damaged by having her concluding the song in an overly-tight-follow spot while a set change goes on behind her, and by not having nearly the motivation it should have (I've seen the song placed in other productions after her final scene with Cliff, and without that lead up there's not the sense that she's working out and defying all her problems in the middle of the song). So she's merely good when she could have been spectacular with better support.

Ian Croker makes me a liar again - I've said previously that he's most interesting when he has a hint of evil around him. His Herr Schultz has no hints of evil, and is loveable without being cloying, and remains fascinating. Engledow matches him as her firm exterior melts when confronted by his kindness - and their breakup is heartbreaking.

Dave Smith's Ernst is suitably genial as required, although keeping him as the only person wearing a coat at the end of act one means that too much of a hint is given as to his secret. Kitty McGarry's Frauline Kost is similarly sharp and petty in ways that become darker as the show progresses (it's a pity her character virtually disappears in Act Two).

I've criticised a range of Jim McMullen's directorial decisions, and I should point out that, as many as fail, several others succeed - his use of Doleji in some of the non-cabaret scenes is particularly adroit. His musical direction needs no such criticism - his band is tight and sounds great. Similarly, the design (shared between McMullen and Croker) manages to make the sometimes-awkward Erindale stage play wonderfully, with a good sense of height and space.

This is, let me point out, one of the all-time-classic musicals, done in a very good production. It's not excellent, and there are flaws... but it certainly rewards close watching.

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