This review was originally published in the Windy City Times
Director Matt Hawkins begins his staging of Cabaret with an explosion of flesh. A hothouse profusion of spreading thighs, cantaloupes-on-a-platter cleavage and cheekily exposed half-moon rears create an atmosphere that’s palpably carnal. It’s an apt start for a musical set during the pan-sexual revelry of Weimar-era Germany. As the Emcee welcomes the audience to a deliciously seedy Berlin club at the tri-corner intersection of decadence, beauty and denial, Hawkins ensures that the audience is immersed in the hedonism before the first measure is over.
But what works so well in that first number becomes the theatrical equivalent of a sledgehammer by the third. Hawkins applies a heavy directorial hand to a Hypocrites production rooted in the obviousness of tits and ass and endlessly thrusting pelvises. The crotchtacular choreography becomes impotent through repetition, edgy raunchiness is blunted by the predictability of an ceaselessly writhing array of Rodarte-for-Target-style fishnets, aggressively lacy underpants and whimsical cod pieces.
Despite casting a female as the Emcee, Hawkins hasn’t created a revisionist Cabaret so much as an overly emphatic one. He pounds away at the political aspects of Fred Ebb (lyrics) and John Kander’s (music) brilliant musical with the same force that he applies to the debauchery. Here, the Emcee – a character written to be creepily amoral – takes an unmistakable stand against the encroaching evil of the Third Reich. As the omnipresent Master of Ceremonies, Jessie Fisher sounds great, but she’s perky and chipper in a role that demands the unsettling menace of moral ambiguity. Moreover, she becomes downright maternal when Hawkins introduces the character of a very young boy into the story and then makes the child a key figure in the Emcee’s stand against the Nazis. Motherliness is surely not what Kander and Ebb had in mind for the show’s voraciously omnisexual leading wo/man.
As for those Nazis: Costuming them in black face masks (that look to be fashioned from Hefty bags) is overstating the obvious.
A similarly over-the-top decision informs Lindsay Leopold’s portrayal of Sally Bowles, the leading lady of enthusiastic oblivion who insists life is a cabaret even as the poison of Hitler’s goose-stepping vanguard seeps into the Kit Kat. Leopold is winningly naughty on “Don’t Tell Mama” and belts with the requisite vengeance through “Mein Herr.” But come the title tune, she goes into a frenzy that evokes the DTs more than the defiant denial the song is all about. Sally might be desperate, but she’s not feral.
Michael Peters is far more effective as bisexual aspiring novelist Clifford Bradshaw. With an understated, wide-eyed gaze , he portrays a lost soul foundering in a thousand longings he can’t even begin to articulate. Also powerful is Kyle Erkonen as the Boy. The grade-schooler’s expressionless eyes and exquisite falsetto are a perfect, eerie fit for “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a song that’s comes with a context as frightening as the looming specter of death camps.
What Cabaret also gets right is the band, a seven-person ensemble that captures the magnificent score with a down-‘n-dirty, ragtag gusto worthy of the Kit Kat.
The Hypocrites staging of Cabaret ran through May 23, 2010 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph.