Over the many years of its existence, and especially in the fourteen seasons since the company’s productions were first staged indoors at the Wells Fargo Pavilion, Sacramento’s Music Circus has established an identity as a major summer theater site. The productions are thoroughly professional, often featuring cast members who are major stage and screen performers from Broadway and Hollywood.
Most of the productions are song-and-dance fests, with talented ensembles enlivening classic musicals from the last century that often deal in simple tales of love and its many complications. Most of these productions are appreciated more for the singing and choreography they provide than for the stories they tell. But every so often (“Les Miserables” in 2007 and “Miss Saigon” in 2011 to name two), a production is offered that rises above the standard fare and that captures a theme that demands greater attention and respect. Another such production was offered last week with “Cabaret.”
Originally produced and directed on Broadway in 1966 by Harold Prince, “Cabaret” is based on a play (“I Am a Camera”) by John Van Druten and on stories by Christopher Isherwood. It won eight Tony Awards in 1967, including best musical, best musical score, best direction and best choreography. The musical’s book is by Joe Masteroff with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The tale is of pre-Nazi Berlin (circa 1931) when Hitler was just starting to gain attention and anti-Semitism was a dark cloud on the horizon. The story focuses on the Kit-Kat Klub, where an androgynous Emcee presides over a decadent culture that relishes in sexual freedom and licentious attitudes.
Sally Bowles, a nineteen year old from England, is one of the chorus girls at the club. Early on she meets Cliff Bradshaw, a young American writer who is working on his first novel. They begin a romance that becomes a focus of the play. Another couple, however, have a more telling place in the developing drama beneath the frivolity and joie-de-vivre that the Emcee of the club exudes. They are Fraulein Schneider, Cliff’s landlady, and Herr Schultz, the Jewish grocer who woos her with fresh fruit and good humor. Their romance is ultimately threatened by the emerging sentiment against Jews that leads to the play’s denouement.
“Cabaret” can be staged in a number of ways. One is to focus on the romance between Sally and Cliff (the movie version, starring Liza Minnelli, takes this approach). Another is to emphasize the decadence of the club and the society it represents. A third, one boldly tackled by director Glenn Casale in last week’s production, is to highlight the dark aspects of the history that is especially captured in the relationship of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. And in those roles, Mr. Casale had two veterans (Mary Gordon Murray and Music Circus regular Ron Wisniski) whose portrayals were superb. Ms. Murray offered an early highlight with her solo, “So What.” And the two provided poignancy in their duets (“It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married”).
But “Cabaret” is also a terrific musical, and it has many musical highlights that were marvelously displayed in the Music Circus production. In particular, Robin De Jesus captured the mystery and intrigue of the Emcee throughout his performance. He enlivened the opening “Willkommen” and another first-act highlight, “Money,” and had a surprising part in the “Kick Line” that opened the second act. That and many other musical scenes were enhanced by a first-rate ensemble of 14 professionals. (The great choreography on “Kick Line” and throughout the production was by Bob Richard.)
Kaleigh Cronin (as Sally) and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (as Cliff) were also excellent, with Ms. Cronin providing another highlight with her great solo of “Cabaret” in the second act. She and Mr. Herdlicka offered fine duets on “Perfectly Marvelous” and “Don’t Go.” (The fine nine-piece orchestra was conducted by music director Jeff Rizzo.)
But perhaps the greatest credit for this truly magnificent production goes to Mr. Casale, who maintained the integrity of his vision with a closing scene that was shocking and powerful. The silent curtain call was, like the rest of the production, perfect.