KPBS AIRDATE: September 25, 1996
The muse of music must be smiling down on us: It’s been a super time for glorious voices and engaging musical theater. Last week, I rhapsodized about productions of “Carousel” and “Phantom.” This week’s fare is more sultry and sexy: a revival of “Cabaret” and a world premiere musical, “Play On!,” based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
First, “Cabaret,” another huge musical undertaking for the San Diego Repertory Theatre. The 1966 show, which won numerous awards in New York and London, and later on-screen, isn’t easy to pull off.
It’s got to be as sexually profligate and decadent as its 1930 Berlin setting. It has to juggle humor and pathos with the sad seediness of everyday German life and a terrifying undertone of emerging Nazism. The singing and dancing have to be powerful and sensual. The Rep’s production, directed and choreographed by Javier Velasco, succeeds very well, some of the time.
Musically, it’s excellent. The solos and production numbers are great, including all those memorable Kander & Ebb tunes like the title song and “The Money Song,” the movie additions, “Maybe This Time” and “Mein Herr,” and the chilling Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” The dancing and the costumes are uninspired; the suggestive moves are there, but there’s no palpable eroticism; everyone just seems to be going through the motions, way beyond the ennui of the era.
As the amoral Master of Ceremonies at the sleazy Kit Kat Club, Sean Thomas Murray has all the menacing smarm and vocal flexibility, but he, too, lacks the requisite sexuality, a surprising disappointment, since he did such a spectacular bisexual star-turn several years back in the Rep’s “Rocky Horror Show.”
The talented John Carroll is frighteningly convincing as the Nazi fundraiser, and Priscilla Allen makes the pragmatic landlady quite sympathetic. But the evening belongs to Karole Foreman, who, in an inspired little twist, uses her dynamic presence and dynamite voice to play Sally Bowles like that African-American in Paris, Josephine Baker. Foreman is the powerhouse centerpiece of a spirited if not a provocative production.
Now, when it comes to arousing, not to mention sensuous productions, “Play On!” wins the prize. The music, which ranges from swing to jazz to blues, is pure Duke Ellington, wonderfully arranged and fabulously sung. The choreography is by Duke’s granddaughter, Mercedes Ellington, and she beautifully recreates the energetic/frenetic feel of 1940’s Harlem in its heyday, Cotton Club and all.
When Sheldon Epps, who imaginatively conceived and directed the piece, says it’s very loosely based on “Twelfth Night,” he ain’t just whistling ‘Dixie.’ This is about the fifth musicalization of the 1601 original, and it is far, far from home. But the transpositions are humorously multi-layered; the riffs on Shakespeare’s characters are in turn caricatures of Harlem celebrities.
For example, the Count has become the Duke (as in Ellington); Olivia is Lady Liv, a thinly disguised Lady Day; the quick-witted maid Maria is a Sarah Vaughan-like Miss Mary, and so on. The mood (Indigo and otherwise) is perfect. All of the seven principals are terrific singers and dancers, and the musical arrangements, by former Ellington associate Luther Henderson, are superb. Both the band and the abstract mirror-paneled set provide excellent backup. And the colors and costumes — nothing short of kaleidoscopic.
There’s only one problem; it feels more like a musical revue than a book musical. With a whopping 25 musical numbers, the songs don’t drive the plot; instead, the story seems to be woven around the music. The songs are, of course, fabulous, but they’re not all well-motivated here. Cheryl L. West’s libretto, her first, is clever but scanty. And even for a Shakespeare comedy, the final couplings are unbelievable. The book could use some expansion and the music some trimming. The second-act opener, “Perdido,” doesn’t really fit, and “Black Butterfly” could go, too; both are overwrought.
But this new venture has legs — and wings, too. Most of the time, it soars. It’s so damned much fun. Everyone looks to be having a wonderful time; all you want to say to them is, “Play On!”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.