Review: Cabaret – Tomo Suru Players

Sebastian Ochoa Mendoza

I entered Club XY with an instant curiosity of the performance to come. A six-piece band sat
on my left as I entered, on my right the seating area, and to my front a large bar. I ordered an
ounce of Irish whiskey and found my seat.

I had never seen a production of Cabaret before, though I was somewhat familiar with a few
of the numbers, including “Willkommen” and “Maybe This Time”, a favourite of mine. It wasn’t
until I saw the poster for this production that I realised it had to do with Nazism, so I went into the
show completely intrigued of what was to come.

For those who are aware of the musical, they’ll know that the Emcee plays a large role,
without much establishment of who he is as a character, his purpose in the show being to get us
in the mood of a pre-World War II Berlin, and the world of Cabaret. He opens the show, to no
surprise, and hits us with an immediately note-worthy performance by Gil Yaron. I’m no German,
or linguist for that matter, but not once did I question the validity of his German accent. It
sounded over-the-top, but so was he, an incredibly expressive man who brought laughs and
excitement to the crowd with the opening number. His performance remained just as strong
throughout, always engaging with the audience and keeping us entertained past some of the
duller moments.

The opening number, “Willkommen”, was very much held together by Yaron’s energy. It
could have been the sound, or the great distance between the band and the stage, but the vocal
power of the opening was underwhelming. I can’t say whether this was specific to the opening
number, or perhaps by the second number I had gotten used to the discrepancy between music
and vocals, but this was one of two issues I had noticed by this point of the show.

The second issue I had noticed in the opener was the ensemble. Most of them, with one
noticeable exception, felt like they didn’t really want to partake in the whole song and dance.
Their bodies followed the choreography properly, as far as I could tell, but their faces seemed
unamused, in clear juxtaposition to the excitement of the Emcee. The noticeable exception was
Helga, a chorus member with two ponytails, whose energy stood on par with that of Yaron. Each
of the four women in the ensemble known as the Kit Kat Girls, which included the talented Krista
Aggerholm as Helga, had their personal charm. The entire bar was used as part of the stage, so
when one of the girls would sing by my chair, it was quickly apparent that they each had a
beautiful voice. Throughout the show, their personalities shone through in different scenes, such
as in one number, where one of the girls (I couldn’t tell whom) played the part of a monkey quite
brilliantly, definitely a comedic highlight of Cabaret. With that being said, it was disappointing to
see a number of songs being energised in most part by Aggerholm, who wasn’t without a couple
of fallings out of character here and there.

We move on, then, to meet Cliff, our fish-out-of-water American in a visit to Berlin to
perhaps be inspired by the city for his next novel. The actor, a Maxwell Smith, definitely looked
the part of Cliff, seeming almost like a fish-out-of-water in the cast. While the members of the
cabaret, including the Emcee and Cliff’s future lover Sally Bowles, danced around him, grabbed
his butt, and acted appropriately eccentric around him, Smith couldn’t help but smile, be
uncomfortable, act dismissive when even his dialogue didn’t call him to do so. He was, clear as
day, not as invested in this production as the rest of the cast. While the others went out of their
ways to act eccentrically and fully commit to their roles, Smith found it sufficient to act the way he
felt and be himself, without putting much effort into his performance. His same sense of unease
and confusion carried throughout Cabaret, even as his character supposedly develops into a
confident player of the Berlin lifestyle. To the actor’s credit, he did sing rather well, and he was
definitely believable in some of the more dramatic scenes. The actor has a lovable quality to him
that was clearly what got him cast as Cliff. I liked him, I liked the actor, and I felt sympathetic to
his character. In other dramatic scenes, however, he appears to play simply an angrier version of
himself, this being the case in a scene in the second act where he confronts Ernst Ludwig, the
show’s resident Nazi, who ironically is also introduced in the same train scene where we meet
Cliff.

I say ironically, because among the main cast, with perhaps the exception of the Emcee,
John Ennis Graham’s performance as Ludwig is the show’s most commendable, carrying pretty
much every scene he was in. His performance was reminiscent of Christoph Waltz who plays a
Nazi in the Tarantino flick Inglorious Basterds, for which he won an Academy Award. I wouldn’t go
so far as to say that Graham’s performance is on par with that of Waltz, but the fact that I can
compare the two says much about the quality of Graham’s acting. He was entirely sympathetic
for much of the first act, and the moment he was revealed to be a Nazi, the rage once withheld
clicks as he yells that a certain Jew wasn’t German, and I was instantly terrified of his character.
Fantastic acting. If I had any issue with the character of Ludwig, it would be the hand-made Nazi
band on his arm, which looked fine from afar, but childish when Graham would roam past the
audience. And regarding the Nazi band, a mistake on the director’s part, Gerald Williams, was
having Ludwig wear the band for every subsequent scene after it is revealed that he is a Nazi. If
he never wore it prior to the closing of the first act, there’s no reason for him to wear it willy-nilly
for the rest of the show. This and the character of Sally carrying a bottle of gin everywhere were
Williams’ only decisions that took me out of the realistic drama of Cabaret. Everything else, as far
as Williams’ work is concerned, was pretty great.

We then follow Cliff to a scene in which he rents out an apartment from landlady Fräu
Schneider, played by Jacqollyne Keath. Overall, her performance was quite fantastic. She
appeared to be the oldest member of the cast, which is perhaps why she played the part so
convincingly. Her dialogue was always spot-on, and though she performed her songs well,
Cabaret’s second number, “So What?”, was a tad lacklustre. Again, she performed it well, but her
voice trailed and faded so many times that it was hard to keep up with the lyrics. She had a
powerful voice, but was afraid to utilise it. This was a number that required energy, and she didn’t
quite bring it, unfortunately. Though this continued to partially be the case with her duet part in “It
Couldn’t Please Me More (A Pineapple)”, the intrinsic quietness and subtlety to her voice
belonged well to the numbers “Married” and “What Would You Do?”, the latter being easily one of
the strongest parts of Cabaret. Her vocal and acting performance in that number brought tears to
my eyes. With the exception of the minor issues in her earlier singing parts, Keath’s performance
was consistently strong throughout, and it was a joy to see her in every scene in which she
appeared.

We are then introduced to Herr Schultz, the Jewish-German and Fräu Schneider’s love
interest. Schultz was played by Charlie Deagnon, and rather well. What was apparent by the
casting decisions was that the actors were chosen for the strength of their vocals. In every flaw I
witnessed in the performances of Cabaret, I could always praise the singing. Fortunately,
Deagnon’s acting was pretty great. It was a bit odd to see him falling in love with the noticeably
older Keath, making the pineapple song seem a bit out of place, but the two played their parts so
well that after that number, I was completely convinced that I wanted the two to end up together.
Deagnon’s German accent was probably the weakest among the main cast, but he played his
part sympathetically, which resulted in me caring a lot more about their love than the story of Cliff
and Sally.

We’re then introduced to Sally Bowles, British performer at the Kit Kat Club, played by
Sarah Seekamp. Now, as little as I knew about Cabaret going into the show, one thing of which I
was made aware was that Sally Bowles is one of the iconic female roles in the history of
Broadway. I did not get this impression in the Tomo Suru Players production. Don’t get me wrong,
as far as I’m concerned, Seekamp’s performance of Sally was fairly strong. She commanded the
stage in many of her scenes and numbers, my favourite being her intoxicated performance of
“Cabaret” at the end of the second act. Sally is written to be quite a frustrating character, always
aloof and inconsiderate. What I imagine is the character’s appeal on the Broadway stage is the
sympathy you end up feeling for her. I did not feel much sympathy for Sally in this rendition of
Cabaret, which was perhaps my main flaw with Seekamp’s performance. Otherwise, she
enunciated, she sang rather well, she consistently performed with energy, allowing for the show
to keep me entertained for its entire runtime. She is a strong performer, but I didn’t love her
character, and that must’ve been her fault. She seemed mismatched with Cliff, their chemistry not
really interesting me as much as that of Schultz and Schneider. There was always something
uneven going on in any scene with Sally and Cliff, and it was unfortunately my biggest criticism
with the show, because it’s supposedly the plot line we’re supposed to follow the closest.
Thankfully, the script didn’t dwell too much on their not-so-romance, as convincing as Seekamp’s
performance was. Not as convincing, her British accent.

The first act, overall, was quite strong. Many of my criticisms were nitpicks, to be fair, and
the fact that I enjoyed myself as much as I did is a testament to the directing, the impeccable
lighting design, the flawless orchestra, and the increasingly energetic performances of the
ensemble and the leads. One weakness I haven’t yet mentioned of the first act was the
unevenness of a few numbers. “Two Ladies” could have been very strong had it not been for the
consistently deadpan performance of Max Hall as one of the ensemble members. Physically, he
suit the role of Bobby –– strong voice, handsome face –– but he often needed the encouragement
of some of the energetic Kit Kat Girls for him to finally appear as if he was enjoying himself.
Otherwise, he never really seemed like he wanted to be there. When given lines as Bobby,
however, he played his part well, engaging in a racy scene with Cliff, whose make-out session
with Bobby was undeniably the most convincing part of his performance. Another surprisingly
underwhelming number from the first act was Seekamp’s rendition of “Maybe This Time”. To be
completely fair, I had high expectations, as it’s one of my favourite Broadway solo numbers,
period. But unfortunately, as committed as she was to her performance, her voice cracked quite a
bit, and the song lacked the strength it deserved. I could tell it wasn’t just me when I noticed that
the audience’s applause for this number was perhaps even weaker than the applause given to the
Emcee after “Money”, a much less memorable song on paper. Being fair, I did watch one of the
last performances of Cabaret, and with eight days of performance past her, it’s understandable
that her singing isn’t quite as strong as it might’ve been at the start of the show’s run.

A definite highlight of the first act, twelve-year-old Jian Ross’ performance as a Nazi youth
member. Her song was brilliant, her voice angelic, and I got emotional seeing the tears in her
eyes. A wonderful actress, definitely a talent with a bright future ahead. Another highlight, the
performance of Stefanie Stanley as Fraulein Kost. Though I didn’t quite see the point of her
character to the story, she had quite a few singing parts throughout the show, and Stanley played
her impeccably. I could not think of a single flaw to her performance. If I hadn’t known better, I’d
say she could have been an actress taken straight from the Broadway show. The scenography,
the placement of the characters throughout Club XY, much of the strength of Cabaret is thanks to
the director and to the talented crew. They put on a great show.

The second act started strong, with solo performances by each of the orchestra members.
An excellent touch, as the trumpet, sax and guitar soloists roamed the audience and showed off
their talent.
Every single number of the second act was incredibly strong. From the emotional solo
songs of Schultz and Schneider to Sally’s drunken “Cabaret”, the soloists gave it their all in the
second act, nicely summing up the show as a whole. One big highlight of the act, other than
Keath’s previously mentioned rendition of “What Would You Do?”, was the Emcee pulling out his
dramatic acting chops in “I Don’t Care Much”. He commanded that song, and for the first time in
the show, I realised how truly talented the actor was. It’s easy to be an engaging Emcee when
you have as much energy as Yaron, but to sing with as much heart is no small feat. The actor can
sing, and his rendition of “I Don’t Care Much” was deeply moving.
After such strong performances by Graham, Keath and Deagnon, I found it hard to care
much about Cliff and Sally’s story. A pregnancy scare, a runaway trip back to Pennsylvania, none
of it was all that interesting when compared to the true heartbreak felt by the Nazi/Jew storyline
through the performances of the actors involved.

The second act was short and sweet, and thankfully so, because the more drama-heavy
scenes could easily have brought the show to a lull. By the time the Emcee was bidding us all
farewell, I sat completely satisfied with Cabaret. The Kit Kat Girls had become more confident as
the show went on, and the numbers had become more consistently excellent. I left the club with a
new contender for my all-time favourite musical. In every respect, the strengths of the show
outweighed the weaknesses; a solid effort on stage as well as behind the scenes.

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