Cabaret at The New Orleans Art Center through Nov. 24
If you haven’t seen Kander & Ebb’s Tony-winning musical Cabaret before (what, not even Liza’s Oscar-winning turn on celluloid?), get yourself over to the Bywater’s New Orleans Art Center on St. Claude for See ‘Em On Stage’s eminently watchable production, officially titled Cabaret (1998 Version), a nod to the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival that amped up the sexuality and became a long-running Broadway hit.
In its Kit Kat Klub song’n’dance scenes, Director Christopher Bentivegna evokes the sleaziness one can find in a Bourbon Street strip club or, perhaps, the more tourist-oriented tawdriness of, say, Chris Owens’ establishment.
But while you may think you’re in 2019 New Orleans, this is actually 1930 Berlin, teetering on the edge before the you-know-what really hit the fan.
Based on stories by Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret tells of bisexual, wannabe writer Clifford Bradshaw (Isherwood’s stand-in) and his experiences with guys, gals, Nazis and Jews during his stay in the German capital, most notably his involvement with English singer Sally Bowles, a party girl of the highest order whose meager purse can’t support her champagne tastes.
Swanning around the stage with legs that go on forever, Kali Russell perfectly captures Sally’s blithely amoral temperament. She exudes a quirky seductiveness, pushy yet needy. Sally is always a challenge for performers; she’s not supposed to be a top-tier entertainer yet the actress playing her has to belt out some of Broadway’s most iconic numbers.
Russell, who has excelled in comedies, dramas and musicals, makes Sally a bit klutzy on stage, but expertly puts over the songs by locating just the right level of talent for Sally. She also brings out the casual charisma of a gal men find it hard to say “No” to. By the time she gets to the title number, her guts spilling out onto the stage, Russell is properly powerful and pitiable. It well might be the best version of the song Cabaret I’ve ever seen.
Clint Johnson partners Russell well as the Emcee, the role that vaunted Joel Grey and Alan Cumming to star status. A bit pudgy, with shaved head and a gleeful devilishness, Johnson combines a little sugar, a little spice and a little poison, to become a seeming avatar of Nazism. He doesn’t realize, however, that his saucy pansexuality makes him a perfect candidate for the death camps as the Nazis do away with all degenerates.
Margeaux Fanning, as Fräulein Schneider who runs the boardinghouse where Cliff winds up, and Ken Goode, as the Jewish grocer Herr Schultz in love with Schneider and not worried about the emergent Nazis because he was “born a German”, are both excellent and touching as Schneider’s survival instincts trumps and puts an end to their burgeoning romance.
In the rather thankless role of Clifford, Josiah Rogers, with his hangdog eyes, adopts a low key mien, an apt choice for this young man still discovering himself. He and Russell make Clifford and Sally’s final scene together heartbreaking.
The six Kit Kat girls seem genuinely not nice as though they might break into a brawl backstage any minute. Kudos to the actresses for creating such a nasty li’l ensemble and executing Bentivegna & Russell’s choreography, both its wonderful steps and intentional missteps, with aplomb.
Despite the copious amounts of flesh on display, this remains a fairly standard issue Cabaret. This is not necessarily a criticism as it’s entirely well done; maybe I’ve just seen too many productions of it. After all, this is the fourth local one since Katrina, not counting the one that played the Saenger.
Perhaps I just expected more from Bentivegna, a director I admire who gave us an electrifying local premiere of Lizzie and brought new life to The Wiz last year. Despite his best efforts, the first act seems to go on forever, as it always does (the second zips by in under 45 minutes), though its ending, when the Nazi menace first rears its ugly head, certainly gets under your skin. Bentivegna also makes the production’s finale quietly devastating.
The show’s two most memorable moments, however, are unique to it. For the naughty number Two Ladies, Bentivegna has two chorus boys (Chad Gearig-Howe, who also does the fine musical direction, and Daniel Oakley) in semi-drag join the Emcee rather than the usual two gals or even a guy and a gal; it rightly pushes the envelope to show Weimar Berlin at its edgiest.
And having cast an African-American actor as Clifford, Bentivegna’s one acknowledgment of race is when a pregnant Sally questions the paternity of her baby and wonders what he’ll look like; Clifford/Rogers replies as per the script “We’ll know if it’s mine,” while holding up Sally’s hand in his. Point made, beautifully. I just wish there had been more such singular moments.
If you’re a Kit Kat Klub virgin, however, just go to this Cabaret. You’ll certainly feel willkommen.
New in New York
Should you be going to New York in the next few months and have some free time, well, a lot of free time, you may want to check out The Inheritance on Broadway (Ethel Barrymore Theatre thru March 1, 2020). It takes a while to get going but eventually pays off richly.
Inspired by E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, Matthew Lopez’s nearly six-and-a-half hour, two part exploration and rumination on gay history of the last 35 years or so, well, at least that subsection occupied by middle- and upper-class, mostly white men in NYC and its close environs, works in two modes: (a) preachy, we-have-to-learn-from-and-respect-the-past and (b) rigorous and involving storytelling. The former is maddeningly pedantic; the latter is vibrant and ultimately quite moving.
Five actors play the seven main roles, including Foster himself. As couples break up and others come together, The Inheritance examines love, hope, family, yearnings, missed connections and other such big and vital themes, jumping back and forth between the recent past (2015-18) and the 1980s. Real estate, both urban and rural, plays a prominent role, but also Broadway openings and backstage intrigue, business dealings with Arabs, and sex, lots of sex, sometimes anchored by relationships, other times for pure hedonistic fun.
Each part has three acts. I could have done without the first two acts of Part One with their boatloads of exposition, rather cheap lecturing, and meta-theatrics about writing one’s story. Once Lopez focuses on the drama, however, in Part I, Act 3, I became thoroughly invested with The Inheritance, and stayed that way until its end except for a talky patch in Part 2, Act 2.
The acting throughout is topnotch, particularly Andrew Burnap, Samuel H. Levine, and Kyle Soller as three 30somethings (and one 19-year-old; Levine doing double duty) entangled in messy personal and professional relationships, and John Benjamin Hickey as a Trump-supporting gay billionaire who’s more complex than he seems at first.
The Inheritance features trite cliches and gorgeous monologues, crackling scenes of passion and passages that sound like mere academic debates. I have nothing against marathonesque shows (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (8 hours)! Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata (9 hours)!), but two hours less might have made Inheritance a stronger piece of theater.
If you only want to see one part, I’d go with the second. Yet the coup de théâtre that ends Part One (no spoilers here) achieves a transcendent moment of theater I’ll not soon forget. I know folks who have loved The Inheritance and others who hated it. If you see it, let me know what you think.
If there’s not a lot of must-see theater currently in NYC, a number of museum exhibitions are well worth visiting.
If The Inheritance deals with the fallout from the AIDS holocaust, Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place) focuses on one specific aspect of WWII’s Holocaust.
The exhibit begins with interesting background information about the Polish town which has become synonymous with the Nazis’ killing machine. Auschwitz, Oswiecim in Polish, was a crossroads bordering Germany, Austria and Russia. It had been affectionately regarded by Jews, even those not born there, because locals would give them a warm welcome when they were visiting or passing through.
You can see films of the city before the war. It looks like a nice place. Then the Nazis turned it into their largest concentration camp.
Somber from the start–an electrified fence is on view–as the exhibit sets the stage for what is to come, it can be a bit repetitious, especially if you have some familiarity with this subject; it’s also a bit dry what with architectural drawings of the camp. But this merely represents the quiet before the storm of details of how it operated and brutal images of death.
You go on to learn about the bizarre rivalry between concentration camp leaders and how Auschwitz evolved from a concentration camp to a vast death camp. Just when you think it may be over, the story changes from one of gas chambers to one about those prisoners who were selected to work for their captors and how they survived. Fascinating sections follow on the Resistance, Death Marches, Liberation and the aftermath of it all.
Along the way drawings by Anne Frank bring her to youthful life. I learned of the first female Rabbi, Regina Jonas (1902–44), who was murdered at Auschwitz. Reproductions of paintings by the brilliant artist Felix Nussbaum remind you of the loss of this major talent. And when you read that Hugo Boss was “proud to be known as the ‘supplier for National Socialist uniforms since 1924,’” you’ll never want to wear one of their items again.
Needless to say, some of the similarities between our President and Hitler are shocking.
Among the more than 700 objects and 400 photographs that populate the exhibition, what may have the greatest impact are video interviews with survivors of the camp. That they went on to live and thrive and tell their story is an awe-inspiring testament to the human spirit.
Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. was originally supposed to run through January but, due to an overwhelming response, it’s been extended through August 30, 2020. Don’t miss it.
On a much lighter note, Baptized By Beefcake (through Jan. 5) is the second large show at the new Poster House museum (119 W. 23 St.); the first was a marvelous one of Alphonse Mucha posters. This wonderfully titled exhibition informs you how movies, economics and religion mixed in the 1980s and ’90s to inspire larger-than-life posters in Ghana.
These posters, mostly for action and horror films, generated excitement in small towns where men showed movies using gas-run generators and TVs or VCRs. “The competition for artistic supremacy was intense between the artists,” says one of the wall stencils of the nearly 20 painters represented in the show.
If the images on the posters don’t always reflect what actually happened in the movies, so what? The artists knew what images were most likely to sell tickets. This is an excellent opportunity to see these “miraculous survivors” (so many of the posters have been destroyed or lost) that are part of a captivating, little known episode of global pop culture and lots of campy fun.
Also on view through January 5 is 20/20 InSight: Posters from the 2017 Women’s March. The works in this one-room exhibit are all great (my favorite: “Not usually a sign person but Jeez”), but for me, it drove home how, more than marching, voting and even running for office is essential for change.
At the Museum of the City of New York (1220 5th Ave.), PRIDE–Photographs of Stonewall and Beyond by Fred W. McDarrah (through Dec. 31) focuses on the esteemed Village Voice photographer’s images from the first 25 years post-Stonewall. These fabulous pics include ones of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day march, and of a young man wearing a t-shirt that says “Support Blind Gays.”
The Guggenheim Museum (1071 5th Ave.) has Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now (through Jan. 5) which, alongside a focused selection of Mapplethorpe’s images, showcases the work of six artists who offer expansive approaches to exploring identity through photographic portraiture, most notably Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Zanele Muholi.
Fans of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) must visit the Neue Galerie (1048 5th Ave.) before January 13 to see a superb show of the German artist who was part of the Expressionist movement. Wildly colorful and offering incisive social commentary, in 1933, his work was branded as “degenerate” by the Nazis and in 1937, over 600 of his creations were sold or destroyed. How fortunate to be able to see these magnificent canvases and prints that survived.
Opera buffs should head to The Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Ave.) for Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff (through Jan. 5) which presents rare documents and artifacts, including set designs, costumes from Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, autograph manuscripts, & contracts, and offers insights into the birth of these two operas.
While there, check out the beautiful works from the Italian Baroque era in Guercino: Virtuoso Draftsman (through Feb. 2) and the spectacular drawings in John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal (through Jan. 12); a couple of hotties in it look like they could come to life.
There’s also Duane Michals at the Morgan (through Feb. 2) an interesting retrospective of this gay photographer that wasn’t quite my proverbial cup of tea.
And not sure what may be going on at Daniel Nardicio’s Bedlam (40 Avenue C) when you’re there (Bette, Bathhouse + Beyond, which kicked ass during Southern Decadence, will pop up on Nov. 27), but I caught Call Us Miss Ross, a Diana Ross tribute show, which featured former Village Voice columnist and man-about-town Michael Musto, Detroit drag queen extraordinaire Jacqueline Dupree, and a dinosaur playing an accordion. What more could you ask for?!
Please send press releases and notices of your upcoming shows to Brian Sands at email@example.com.