'Cabaret' review: Step inside, it's beautiful

Pioneer PressBy Dominic Papatola January 19, 2014

If your New Year's resolution was to see more good-quality musical theater, Theater Latte Da's production of "Cabaret" would be an excellent way to start. Simply put, the staging at the Pantages Theater is an exceedingly strong one, top to bottom and beginning to end.

Director Peter Rothstein and his creative team clearly have studied the show. This staging borrows a little from Bob Fosse's iconic 1972 film (including a couple of tunes written for or inserted into the movie), a bit from various revivals (including the snark, if not the strung-out nihilism, of Sam Mendes' 1993 Donmar Warehouse production), and some (presumably) from the original 1966 Broadway production.

Derivative? Maybe. But this crisp, naughty and propulsive production also has a vigor and an energy all its own. The musical is set in the dying days of Germany's Weimar Republic, just as the Nazis were beginning their rise to power. But Rothstein's production doesn't telegraph the coming atrocities or pound them home with a sledgehammer.

"In here, life is beautiful," the Emcee coos at the beginning of the show, and while the adjective is meant to be ironic, there is a sense of naive hedonism and good-natured tolerance about the goings-on at the seedy Kit Kat Klub. And so, even though we know the end is coming, our hearts can't help but quicken as we observe the slow-motion crash.

The catalyst for this pulse-quickening resides primarily in the performance of Tyler Michaels as the Emcee. His playful, androgynous, lightly menacing turn informs and fuels the proceedings. Most productions of "Cabaret" center on the Emcee, and Michaels makes the most of that, ringleading the ensemble through a rousing opening number and commanding the stage in smaller groupings or solo in songs like "Two Ladies" and "I Don't Care Much."

But director Rothstein makes the Emcee a ubiquitous presence. He watches over the first meeting of American novelist Cliff Bradshaw and flighty club singer Sally Bowles, whose relationship provides the show's narrative thrust. The Emcee also observes the doomed courtship of Cliff's no-longer-young landlady and the Jewish fruit merchant trying to woo her. In these scenes, Michaels shows that he knows when to assert himself and when to throw the focus onto his castmates.

Those castmates are worth the attention. In addition to a powerhouse voice, Kira Lace Hawkins brings a coarse sensuality and more than a little edginess to the role of Sally. When she belts out "Cabaret" -- eyes wide, face stained with ruined and running mascara -- a song that traditionally has conveyed devil-may-care good times takes on an I'm-dancing-as-fast-as-I-can sense of desperation. Sean Dooley doesn't have quite as much gravitas as Cliff, who seems more acted-upon than active, but is an able foil.

James Michael Detmar brings a gentle charm to the fruit seller Herr Schultz. And Sally Wingert -- probably the best-known actress in the Twin Cities and a performer who easily could remain in her aesthetic comfort zone -- once again pushes at her boundaries by taking on a tricky musical theater role as the landlady Fraulein Schneider. She triumphs in a wise, grounded and nicely sung turn.

Kind words and kudos are also due to the small-but-mighty ensemble that completes the 15-member cast; to the seamlessly connected work of choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell and designers Kate Sutton-Johnson (set), Rich Hamson (costumes), Marcus Dilliard (lights) and Alex Ritter (sound) and to music director Denise Prosek, who leads an enthusiastic and boisterous six-musician ensemble. Together, their efforts make "Cabaret" a compelling, cohesive and altogether watchable evening.