Dennis Assaf has real estate problems. But problems have never kept this guy down. The Jefferson Performing Arts Society (of which Assaf is honcho and maestro) is celebrating -- against all odds -- its 28th season. Furthermore, Assaf's dream of a new, state-of-the-art theater in Jefferson Parish seems to have gotten a surprising go-ahead from the Legislature. So, what are one or two ruined theaters? One hell of a pain in the neck, that's what. I mean, where do you put on a show?
Assaf's real estate problems were caused by Katrina. The storm wreaked havoc on the JPAS home base in the auditorium of East Jefferson High School, as well as on JPAS' second theater in Westwego.
So, Assaf moved his gang into an undamaged -- though theatrically unpromising -- community center adjacent to the Westwego theater. The JPAS-ites converted the place into a sort of cabaret, with miles of fabric swagged from the rafters, tables and chairs for customers, a small bar and a stage. Presto change-o, the community center took on the decadent charm of the Kit Kat Klub, a fictional nightspot in prewar Berlin that's the locale for Cabaret.
Now, the recent JPAS revival of Kander and Ebb's groundbreaking and Tony-winning Broadway musical was deft and entertaining. So it may seem unfair to go on at length about the building itself. But, given the natural prejudices called up by the words "community center," I have to tell you this intimate music hall (dubbed "Teatro Wego") can be a great place to see a show. At least, it worked like a charm for this premiere.
Cabaret follows the slide of the Weimar Republic into Nazism, but the author hides his hand in the beginning. What we get at first is decadence, and decadence at its most fashionable and appealing: flesh, frills, sex, alcohol. We see the champions, not the casualties, of a decadent lifestyle. Real decadence, the decadence of cruelty and oppression, enters later -- singing hymns to a triumphant future and wearing a swastika armband.
The show was directed by Kris Shaw, who has staged many productions at JPAS over the last few years and starred as the Emcee in the previous production. Cabaret, in its unlikely, improvised theater, was arguably his most accomplished outing. Paradoxically, the strange, site-specific mood was partly responsible for a feeling of authenticity. But a great deal of the credit must go to Shaw and his talented cast.
The Kit Kat girls and boys played up mischievously to our voyeurism -- and mostly avoided tipping things into the cloying abyss of "the cute-stage-whore syndrome" or, rather, when they did, they mostly pulled it off with humor and aplomb. The tone of the nightclub was set by the Emcee -- played with a lewd stylishness by J. Michael Tramontin.
Several stories are woven through Cabaret. For one, we have Cliff Bradshaw (Richard Kevin Smith), an aspiring young American writer who is traveling to Berlin in search of inspiration. He meets and is befriended by Ernst Ludwig (Mark Burton), a friendly German with a sideline in smuggling. Cliff takes a room in the house of Fraulein Schneider (Janet Shea), a lady who has been through the mill, but has kept her spirit. In fact, she has a romantic interest in her life -- Herr Schultz (Wayne Gonsoulin), who unfortunately happens to be Jewish.
This little cluster of characters already contains the germ of a tragedy. For -- as we later learn -- Ludwig is a Nazi. He is smuggling money in for the party.
But, the rise of the Nazis and their effect on Schneider (the landlady), Schultz (the Jew), and Bradshaw (the American writer) is only one of the tragedies in Cabaret. Bradshaw also experiences a more personal disaster: his love for Sally Bowles. Bowles (Trina Beck) is an English girl who performs at the Kit Kat. She moves in with Bradshaw -- bringing into his life an irresistible aura of freedom and a bohemian giddiness that eventually sours to vertigo. She gets pregnant and aborts the baby. Then, she goes back to the club and sings the lilting, bittersweet ode "Come to the Cabaret". For Bradshaw, however, the bitter now outweighs the sweet. He leaves her. Cabaret, as critics have pointed out, is one of the very few musicals that does not tease us with at least a glimmer of redemption. Strange that it remains so popular.
As I said, the JPAS cast was strong and sang well. There's only space enough to mention a few of the smaller-part standouts, like Angie Joachim, Michael Cahill and Hunter McGregor.
The band, off to the side of the stage, rocked on in delightfully raucous style. Kudos to musical director Alan Payne, choreographer Lynne Lawrence, costume designer M. Brady McKellar and Scott Gaudin (who was pretty much Lord High Everything Else).
- Girls, girls, girls: The Emcee of the Kit Kat Club ( J. Michael Tramontin), finds himself the center of attention in JPAS' recent remounting of Cabaret at Teatro Wego.