My recent holiday in Stratford began with two musicals, productions on the same stage that were miles apart in style and impact.
The Music Man was all white and pretty and has o such nice songs, but it left me wanting much more.
Cabaret is a triumph without a weak part in the cast or in the music which was rescored for this production. This is what Stratford can achieve when it works very, very well.
The Music Man
Befitting a matinee, I started off with Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. Bright, everything-is-wonderful-in-Iowa is not really my cup of tea, but I wanted to see what Jonathan Goad would do in the role of Professor Harold Hill. Goad is an actor with some good work behind him at Stratford, and his name in a lead is a sure way to get me into the theatre.
Alas, the whole production, and Goad/Hill himself is just too nice. It’s all bright lights and off-white buildings and ever so cleanly dressed citizenry. “Professor Hill” may have conned someone once or twice long ago, but it was probably an understanding elderly relative who knew exactly what was going on.
The opening piece is a patter song, an exchange for travelling salesmen who are riding a train into town. The rhythms are tied to the sound of a steam locomotive, and done right, this can be a great start for the first act. However, it was too precise, without the slightest move off of the beat for emphasis or humour. Rather like someone who has just discovered Shakespeare and insists on putting all the stresses in exactly the “right” places.
I wanted to like this production and there was much to admire especially in the child actors. Fiona Reid was a delight as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, wife of River City’s blowhard Mayor, while Lee MacDougall, as the Mayor himself, had trouble staying completely in character.
Goad’s delivery of two important songs, “Trouble” and “76 Trombones” just didn’t work for me. “Trouble” depends on the huckster’s ability to seduce his marks, to convince them that the evils of pool “right here in River City” are a threat to civilization as they know it. It should come off almost like a fast talking revivalist, but in this production, Hill almost has to drag the townsfolk over to his side of the stage to get their attention. Once they join in the chorus, they seem more possessed than convinced, and the spell wears off quickly. Similarly, “76 Trombones” just didn’t sound like Hill/Goad could really stir up the town — big sound, yes (see below), but few thrills.
Marian (the Librarian) Paroo (Leah Oster) was rather more on the ball than Professor Hill, but with hardly any character to explain why he would fall so in love with her in Act II.
Particularly galling was the overwhelming sound design in which every singer and instrument was amplified far more than needed. Although I was sitting 6 rows from the stage, I could not hear the actors’ own voices, but rather their disembodied spirits coming from the sound system (at times in a different location from their actual place on the stage).
There’s a lot of dancing, and in the best musical tradition those Iowa folk dance far better than one would expect. It’s one of those theatre things, ya know. They seem to do this a lot.
By the end, I couldn’t help feeling that the production had been stripped down to just the music and dance with the intent of getting the “family” audience out the door in two and a half hours so the little darlings wouldn’t get tired and cranky. They loved it, but they could have seen something so much better.
The evening took me back to the Avon theatre in almost the same seat for Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Here everything is not beautiful, no matter what the lyrics may say, and the set is a cross between a ruined factory and a railway station.
Oddly enough, both The Music Man and Cabaret open with an arrival by train, but that’s the only point of comparison.
I suspect none of my readers can forget the Joel Grey / Liza Minelli / Bob Fosse movie version. A huge tribute to the director, Amanda Dehnert, and cast at Stratford — I didn’t hear one echo of the movie version in my entire evening at the theatre.
Bruce Dow is the Master of Ceremonies, an enchanting, beguiling man who lives somewhere between a clown, a ringmaster and a horrified onlooker. He alone knows, or at least senses, what is to come, and his show, his cabaret, can only paper over history for so long.
Trish Lindström is Sally Bowles, the innocent yet very worldly singer headlining at Berlin’s Kit Kat Club. Ignorant of the political changes afoot in Germany, she gets by on dreams.
Special mention to Nora McLennan and Frank Moore as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. In the stage version of Cabaret, these are major roles (only sketched in the film), and they are strongly played. Schneider is a survivor – she came through WWI and its aftermath, and now runs a boarding house. Schultz has a prosperous fruit market nearby and is always bringing little gifts to Fräulein Schneider including a pineapple that even gets its own song. He thinks the rising anti-Jewish forces will pass like so many other political fads. He will be wrong.
Sean Arbuckle is Clifford Bradshaw, the visiting American would-be writer whose book, eventually, will become a play and later this musical. Cliff is one of the few characters who can actually get out of Germany while there is still time. He may be welcomed as a visitor, but he is resented because he can leave so easily. Meanwhile, he is tricked by a friend Ernst Ludwig (Cory O’Brien) into making trips to Paris to collect funds for the Nazi Party, although he’s naïve enough not to ask just what is going on.
This brings me to the chilling song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” which sits at the heart of Cabaret. It starts as a solo voice, but builds into a choir with heartbreakingly beautiful harmony and delivery. We might imagine choir boys if only we didn’t know what the song portends. The Kit Kat’s misfits and social outcasts are drawn into the chorus one by one, but few of them will survive the coming purge.
At the end of Act 1, the song returns as a bigger chorus with only Cliff and the Master of Ceremonies realizing the true meaning, and the act ends in a blackout. The audience, warmed by familiar tunes and the lures of Berlin nighlife are left alone knowing how soon the Nazis will change history.
The second act has less of the first’s frolic as the darkness closes in. Included here is one of several uses of projected images — in it we see the Master of Ceremonies happily on vacation with his girlfriend, a gorilla, in the song “If You Could See Her”. Dow as the Emcee is clearly uncomfortable with what he is doing, playing to the new crowd in the audience, and the final line “she doesn’t look Jewish at all” is uttered not as a joke, but with contempt for those who might think it funny.
The title song, “Cabaret”, is not done big and bold, but as a last wave at what is about to disappear. Lindström gives us a sadder version, one that leads naturally into the finale with an Auf Wiedersehn and an almost empty stage.
A brilliant production! On stage at the Avon Theatre until late October.