Review: “Cabaret” at The UMass Fine Arts Center

The Roundabout Theatre production of Cabaret at the UMass Fine Arts Center. Photo by Joan Marcus.

by Mark G. Auerbach

History repeats itself in musical theatre, as the Roundabout Theater’s award-winning production of Cabaret visits the UMass Fine Arts Center for one performance.  Director Sam Mendes reimagined Cabaret for a London revival in 1993, which later opened in New York with Alan Cumming in the emcee role created originally by Joel Grey.

The Roundabout revived this production four years ago, again with Cumming, who later came to Amherst with his one-man show.

Today, with the political pendulum turning back the clock in Washington, Cabaret is as provocative and uncomfortable, as it must have been for its audiences back in the day. The script has not been altered to reflect to current political discontent, but it’s so painfully relevant on so many levels.

The Roundabout Theatre production of Cabaret at the UMass Fine Arts Center. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“Life is a cabaret, old chum” sings the oblivious Sally Bowles, as a despotic regime slowly strangles the careless and care-free pre-War frivolity of 24/7 Berlin. In 1966, when Cabaret first opened on Broadway, most theatregoers remembered the impact of the Holocaust and the discontent on American streets in the shadow of the Vietnam war. The award-winning musical, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff, based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin  was a landmark in musical theatre. Harold Prince’s staging was electrifying and its score turned into standards.

Cabaret was a big hit in its day, turning Kander and Ebb into major Broadway composers and lyricists. Their musical Chicago has been running on Broadway for decades. Cabaret brought Kurt Weill’s muse Lotte Lenya back to Broadway, made a star of Joel Grey, and was a major success for producer/director Harold Prince. The show had a long Broadway run, opened in London with Judi Dench as Sally Bowles, and later headed for Hollywood.

Legendary Broadway director and choreographer Bob Fosse helmed the film version. He used different characters from Isherwood’s novella; had Kander and Ebb write many new tunes for the film. He made Sally Bowles an American, cast Liza Minnelli as Sally, and Cabaret became one of the finest film musicals ever produced.

The Roundabout reimagining is sharp and focused, and the tour copies the original sets, costumes, lighting, and choreography of the original. The performances are enthusiastic, but everything’s been toned down for the ease of touring the country in one night stands. This production isn’t on the level of one you might see at The Bushnell, but some of the talent could definitely make its way to the Broadway milieu.

The Roundabout Theatre production of Cabaret at the UMass Fine Arts Center. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The standout performances included Audrey Federici and Fred Frabotta as an elderly couple, she German and he Jewish, who sadly realize that their relationship will not survive the tumult, if they want to survive. Their rendition of “It Couldn’t Please Me More”, alongside the orchestra’s snappy Entr’Acte, and Bailey McCall Thomas, as Sally Bowles, singing the title song, were the show’s high points.

This tour performance of Cabaret in Amherst, sponsored in part by The Westfield News Group, was a one-night stand, but the tour plays other New England dates. For tour information: http://cabaretmusical.com/tour-dates/

Some of the upcoming events on The Fine Arts Center’s eclectic season include: Air Play on March 20; BalletX on March 29, and The Silk Road Ensemble on April 12.

For details on the UMass Fine Arts Center Season: 413-545-2511, 800-999-UMAS or http://www.fineartscenter.com/

The University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center presents Cabaret. Book by Joe Masteroff. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood.. Scenic design by Robert Brill. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by David Temby. Music director: Erik Flaten. Rob Marshall’s choreography recreated by Jennifer Werner. Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s staging recreated by BT McNicholl.

Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio. Mark is producer and host of ArtsBeat Radio on 89.5fm/WSKB.

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