There was the usual cheerful welcome from genial director, Phillip Duggins. But the venue was an odd location for those of us most familiar with enjoying his Masquerade Theatre productions in the comfort of Houston Hobby Center’s Zilkah Hall. The Barnevelder Movement & Arts Complex on Preston Street is a modest little building in a dusty, rundown corner of Houston, just beyond the area of the Minute Maid Park baseball stadium. But somehow the inherently tacky atmosphere of the building and the seedy surrounding neighborhood seemed quite appropriate for this one-weekend-only production of Kander & Ebb’s Broadway musical classic, CABARET, a show that takes place at an equally tacky nightclub in the pre-war Berlin of early 1930’s Germany. Decadence abounds there, and it is never more evident than on the stage of the cheesy and outrageous Kit Kat Klub, with its KKK initials seemingly symptomatic of the growing Nazi cruelty of the era.
We first hear pleasant ’30’s jazz recordings reminiscent of an old Laurel & Hardy soundtrack as we enter this world through the minimal set design of Amanda McBee: a small platform stage with a few cabaret tables below for additional audience seating, a couple of sets of stairs, a few scattered chairs, and a two-man “orchestra” (Luke Kirkwood on piano, Brady Spitz on drums) that is clearly visible backstage through a series of bars suggesting an animal cage at the zoo. And a zoo is what we have here in this bawdy collection of nightclub performers. Arriving in this tawdry world is young American author, Cliff Bradshaw (Michael J. Ross), hoping to there find inspiration for his new novel. Unwittingly, he meets Nazi sympathizer, Ernst Ludwig (Scott Lambert), who offers him some work and recommends an available apartment at the home of Fräulein Schneider (Allison Sumrall). The plot begins to thicken when Cliff visits the Kit Kat and meets the featured singer there, a pretty English girl named Sally Bowles (Kristina Sullivan).
As the Kit Kat action gets underway, the club ensemble (consisting of six Kit Kat Girls and four Kit Kat Boys) opens the musical proceedings with a shadowy and spooky rendition of the familiar, “Willkommen.” Leading the action is the show’s musical director, Adam W. Delka, in the role of the bizarre Emcee. For those who recall seeing Mr. Delka in such more traditional roles as that of Col. Pickering in “My Fair Lady,” it is to his credit that this part seemed both a great departure and a considerable challenge. With wild eyes glaring (and plenty of eye makeup), he rises to the challenge quite well while creating a strange and snarling character, and staying very much within that character throughout the performance. The eerie lighting designs of Miss McBee and the raunchy costume designs of Erin & Kaelin McDonald combine to effectively enhance the freakish look of the nightclub scenes.
Sullivan’s peerless credentials as a talented actress and singer are well established from many Masquerade productions, and I confess to being a big fan. She gives us a radiant and bubbly Sally Bowles at the outset. But I was soon surprised to find her in an excessively hyper state here, seeming to be working endlessly at affecting both a haughty air and an English accent. Those elements could rightfully have their place, but not to the extent here, where so much frantic energy was on display that I fear it even diminished the impact of her ordinarily wonderful singing voice. Lovely songs like “Maybe This Time,” and “Perfectly Marvelous,” do not require a constant frenzy of facial expressions and physical “business” during delivery. Mr. Duggins and assistant director, Luther Chakurian seemed to have a different approach, but Sally’s whole dynamic made me wonder how she could capture the attention of Cliff long enough to get herself pregnant with a child that “might” be his. As for the role of Cliff, Mr. Ross’ interpretation was a puzzle as well, and it created an awkward contrast between these two central characters. Ross is one of the very bright lights in the Masquerade organization with dazzling musical comedy credits in shows like “The Producers,” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” His acting talents for singing, dancing and comedy are all beyond question. Here however, in many scenes he stood around like a moping mannequin, looking numb and disconnected from what was going on around him. How that downcast attitude could spark romance between him and Sally (or his occasional gay lovers) is beyond me.
On a lighter note, frequent Masquerade choreographer, talented Laura Babbitt, (herself one of the Kit Kat girls) provides plenty of sleazy bumps and grinds for the gyrating ensemble. The “Kick Line” that opened Act Two was a dance winner for not only the Kit Kat Girls, but for Mr. Delka as well. But Nazi terror is spreading and the frightening fanaticism is fiercely captured in the song, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” That same terror comes vividly to light in a romantic second plot line revolving about Fräulein Schneider and one of her boarders, a sweet elderly Jewish man named Herr Schultz (Brad Zimmerman). Schultz flirts adorably with Schneider and she responds in kind as Sumrall and Zimmerman offer beautiful duets of “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” and “Married.” In the latter song, Kim Truncale beautifully joins them in the role of Fräulein Kost, another of Schneider’s boarders. With a lovely singing voice, Truncale also shows her flair for comedy as the boarder who is always bringing unauthorized sailors to her apartment. Sumrall delivers a robust and thoughtful, “So What” as Fräulein Schneider reflects on how she copes with life’s difficulties. Shultz and Schneider are well along in years, but the courtship results in their becoming engaged during one of the most charming segments of the show. Their joy is short lived however, as Fräulein Schneider backs out upon learning her marriage to a Jew would not go down well with the Nazi Party. Sumrall’s poignant “What Would You Do?” beautifully captures Schneider’s desperation in ending the engagement. Nevertheless, that tender little romance was so elegantly performed by Sumrall and Zimmerman that it was, for me, the theatrical highlight of this production.
Masquerade Theatre’s next production, THE CIVIL WAR, will play at Zilkha Hall in the Hobby Center from May 18th – 27th. For tickets & information call 713-TMT-9696 or visit the website at http://www.masqueradetheatre.com