Life is a ‘Cabaret’ for Manhattan Arts Center troupe

By Ben Nyberg

Manhattan Arts Center Theatre ends its 2012-2013 season this week with a bang and a sizzle—the final four shows (May 2-5) in the MAC’s Grosh Performance Hall run of the 1966 hit Broadway musical, Cabaret. You probably don’t want to miss this one: whether you’re a big fan of advocacy theater or not, it simply does so much too well to give it a pass. Judging from the size and enthusiasm of the opening-night crowd, this looks to be a pretty big box office draw.

For starters (no top-to-bottom order implied), the glitzy but serviceable two-level set protrudes only a few feet from the back wall, and the three-quarter-round seating pushes spectator sections to the margins, maximizing the “stage” area for the players so that they can bring it smack in the audience’s faces—and believe me, they do.

In order to facilitate movement both within and between scenes (19 of them, all told), stage furnishing and props are wisely kept to basic Shakespeare-bare minimal, which enables scene changes to be accomplished with lightning speed—and in the dark.

As for that super-efficient set, whose video screen flashes timely memos and images, its upper deck houses the biggest, best equipped, and best costumed band (were they all cross-dressed?) I’ve ever seen in the Grosh Hall. Kudos to Music Director Ashalen Sims and her ensemble of six for their splendid support.

Laura Vallejo’s fresh and inventive choreography and the artistry with which the dancers bring it to life may be the single most arresting achievement of the production. Considering how much dance (including programed movement) there is, the level of its overall quality is remarkable.

Costumes look right not just for the period but nearly always right for the individual as well. Again, given the number of costume changes required by the story’s continually shifting scenes, it’s quite an achievement.

Of course you don’t make a musical without a cast, of whom three principals carry the bulk of the weight. It’s the Kit Kat Klub Emcee who sets the tone and charts the tonal progress of the entire piece. Evan Tuttle does a masterful job of conveying the creepy decadence of pop culture in 1930s Berlin as it oozes its way from scary Weimar into the nightmare of the Third Reich.

Tyler Cochran does a commendable job of aging himself into would-be novelist Cliff Bradshaw, whose rational (hence often bewildered) point of view guides our perception of pre-WW2 Berlin. Add a strong singing voice and a sturdy portrayal of idealistic innocence and he manages his share.

But it’s Dianne Paukstelis as the conflicted drifter artiste Sally Bowles who takes “first among equals” honors. Quicker even than her costume changes are the sudden shifts from party-girl vivacity to domestic anxiety to petty indifference to fragile vulnerability she has to make us believe in. She also gets the coveted assignment of convincing us that life is a cabaret, old chum, in which she’s entirely triumphant.

The leads aren’t the only strong members of the cast. Rachel Koch and Frank Siegle bring real poignancy to the star-crossed romance between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Jacob Belden’s Ernst is bone-chillingly creepy. And Lauren Brown’s Fraulein Kost is a bit frightening herself, such slyness hiding beneath the bubbles.

It’s another triumph for Director Penny Cullers, whose Pirates in September I’m already looking forward to. How big a pit band for that, I wonder.

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