In his three-year tenure at KC Rep, artistic director Eric Rosen has given this prim Midwest institution a much-needed shot in the arm, and many of his shows—including the 2010 tuner Venice and 2009’s The Glass Menagerie—have received year-end “best of” accolades from national press outlets. This season, he continues his assault on all things staid and traditional by helming a re-imagined “Cabaret” contrasting fresh staging techniques with down-to-earth perfs to breathe new life into the Broadway classic.
Ironically, Rosen’s new take on the material throws its source material (Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novella Goodbye to Berlin) into a sharper relief than it received in many of its most well-known incarnations. The rise of Nazism, anti-Semitism, even the abortion issue, are tackled head on, sans attention-grabbing stunts.
To wit: In his KC Rep debut, Canuck Brian Sills’ take on the Emcee character is as focused and gimmick free as Alan Cummings’ was ostentatious and gaudy ten years ago at the Donmar Warehouse—Sills’ tightly-wound gymnast body and straightforward gesturing work only to serve Isherwood’s meanings and Kander and Ebbs’ famed music and lyrics.
Regional vet Hollis Resnik (also a KC Rep debut) nails Fraulein Schneider, the resigned older landlady who’s survived wartimes, economic calamities and, now, personal devastation. She plays the role with a contrast of toughness and vulnerability, and her vocals soar, particularly in the tune “So What?”, an anthem about learning to submit to life’s travails with a stiff upper lip.
Fresh-faced musical performer Claybourne Elder, due to headline the upcoming B’way preem of Bonnie and Clyde, plays Cliff Bradshaw, a wayward American writer newly arrived in Weimar Berlin, with an almost grating innocence, but his golden-throated tenor shines, as in “Don’t Go”, a plea to his cabaret live-in Sally Bowles.
And those newfangled staging techniques of Rosen’s? Most notably, he’s gussied up and reconfigured KC Rep’s Spencer Stage as a theater in the round of sorts, with half of the audience sitting in risers erected in the backstage area of the theater, where they can watch performers and crew load in between scenes. A revolving platform stage sits in the middle, but its use is restrained, and the fresh, flowing choreography (Richard J. Hinds) plays easily to all theater areas.
Tech credits, including a snazzy lighting design, are top notch, and supporting characters, including the vampy chorus girls, do yeoman’s work. Musical direction by local fav Anthony T. Edwards gives sturdy, fluid support to onstage action, notwithstanding a few timing problems on opening night.