Cabaret – The Festival Theatre

Music & Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb

Book by Joe Masteroff

Directed by Rufus Norris

Madame’s & Monsieur’s you are cordially invited to Berlin’s it Kit Kat Klub, a den of iniquity, vice and never a virtue. Life has always been a Cabaret: it’s bombastic, emotional and contains just a few surprises, with fewer welcome ones. Joe Masteroff’s book, a play made in 1966 has been cast into the minds of many for the Liza Minnelli film of the seventies – when in reality its nuances, symbolism and staggering beauty lies on the stage.

The remnants of the First World War are still a struggle for the German people of the Weimar Republic in the late 1920s and early ’30s. Arriving into the mix is Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer who befriends choice individuals during his stay at Fraulein Schneider’s small apartment. Taking up an invitation to the Kit Kat Klub, a Kabaret club which epitomises the struggles of the German people and rise of the Nazi party, with select clues for those looking beyond the enticing men and woman, Bradshaw encounters Ernst Ludwig, a German man retrieving various goods from Paris during ‘business’ trips. Above it all, a young chipper Brit, Sally Bowles, captivates any who cross her path.

Approaching act two, illusionary parables fade as a metaphorical context becomes evident, gathering momentous emotion, particularly painful ones, as Partridge collapses from the Emcee, – Jester-King of Cabaret to a fallen idol, an example of the times ahead for the Kit Kat Klub, Germany and Europe. As subtle shades become prominent, the gasps of realisation are nothing of the eventual shuddering imagery of the climax. With the Third Reich rising, Emcee and Sally’s worlds begin to fold in on themselves, a deafening thud of brutality about to echo into the night.

What refuses to fall, is Javier De Frutos’ choreography, for what use is a Klub bar with such sumptuous performers without a little dancing? And while an emphasis may principally focus on burlesque numbers, hypnotically risqué and raunchy, the numbers build in gravitas with less push for humour, and more in syncronising strong-footed movements. Captivating, Kara Lily Hayworth, the entirety of the ensemble cast and John Partridge bring together pin-point accurate movement with the production’s infamous soundtrack.

The production’s vocals are human, not quite as polished as a cast-recording maybe, but what this means is performers such as Anita Harris provides humanity to their numbers like So What? Lyrical construction by Fred Ebb is metaphorically haunting, just as much as his catchy show-girl numbers are extravagant in excess. No, numbers Tomorrow Belongs To Me and reprisals of Wilkommen are excellently written, well composed against John Kander’s ridiculously infectious score, are harrowing in their place within the production.

Absent from the abhorrent future the members of the Klub face, Sally Bowles has her trials, though Lily Hayworth’s momentous return to the venue with Cabaret, the titular number, is the blow-out number of the evening. Bowles is a pixyish character, far from our protagonist, with only Harris and James Paterson’s utterly enrapturing Herr Schultz taking this crown, she is a key focus for the show. Lily Hayworth is playful with just enough sting to keep our interest without over-playing the role. She channels Minnelli (it’s impossible not too) but equally makes the part her own, layering on the English-girl trapped in Germany with gusto. Her emotive control of vocals means that even scenes where perhaps there is a lacking tension, are made in waves of talent.

Master of ceremonies, and mischief-maker to the stars, The Emcee is as revoltingly unnerving to watch as they are mesmerically alluring. Thoroughly unpleasant, John Partridge finds infinite sinful delight in the role, turning who should be an out-right antagonist into the principal player. His spider-like movements reflect his knowledge of the strings to pull. That is of course, excluding the rising black eagle which the Emcee seems to feign ignorance of. Partridge’s control is precise, managing to stir the audience into obeying his ever demeaning, domineering command for attention, praise and all they receive in return is the finger, or if we’re lucky a wink. Behind the double-digits of false lashes, the precise choreography and elaborately delicious The Money Song, there are two instances of Partridge’s considerable ability to shock, terrorise and stir poignancy: Tomorrow Belongs to Me and Cabaret’s closing moments.  

Silence in the theatre is deafening, it is either the maker of production or its sentence. No claps or shrill whistles, an audience halted in their jubilant celebrations of Cabaret as reality rears its vulgar presence. This is what the narrative has been building towards, a sinister viper lurking beneath the glitz, awaiting its moment. Its framing is monumentally heart-breaking. The cold bodies, lining against a wall, the eventual downpour, a reminder of Europe’s all too recent history, and the atrocities never to be forgotten.

Tragically, this is where the near-perfection of Cabaret stumbles, in the tonal shifts and merger of the three plot threads. Charles Hagerty does a fine job with an underwritten role, but the delivery lacks charisma. His undertones of battling with his sexuality, his confrontations with the brown-shirts all feel for not when his attitudes towards Bowles and his lacking presence all work against rooting for the character, Hagerty unable to overcome this dislike is sadly swept aside for far more engaging characters. 

And what characters this production has to its name, that the occasional weak link cannot break the behemoth’s chains of excitement. The Cabaret bars of Berlin, where a dying light as oppression grew, hiding from a political wallop on apathy and totalitarianism. Burying their heads in scuzzy hedonism, a hammer looming overhead, Norris’ touring production of Cabaret is a near-perfect sensationalist piece, with a deep social bite to complement its bark.  

Cabaret Runs at Edinburgh Festival Theatre until November 9th: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/cabaret

Photo Credit – The Other Richard

The King and I – The Playhouse, Edinburgh

Music by Richard Rodgers

Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Based upon Margaret Landon’s Anna And The King

Directed by Bartlett Sher

As the shimmers of lustrous gold part, a steamboat trundles into view. This behemoth set-piece, simple though effective, offers an immediate scale to The King and I. Charged as the new teacher to the children of the King of Siam, or at least those children in favour, Anna docks in a distant land, where customs are not the norm for her English ways. Then again, neither are her behaviours for the residents of the Kingdom. A foundation in the musical theatre pantheon, The King and I is a staple of the industry. Borrowing, perhaps too closely, from the 1956 film starring iconic actor Yul Brinner, Bartlett Sher’s The King and I revels in splendour.

So, let’s address the Elephant in the room, shall we? Hammerstein’s original lyrics and script work for The King and I haven’t aged well, though in truth its white saviour plot point, overarching a narrative riddled with stereotypes, negative imagery and cultural appropriation has never been acceptable. If you cannot move beyond these aspects of theatre, The King and I won’t be for you (though this is another discussion entirely). Nor is three-quarters of musical theatre pre-millennium. In their drive to pursue a story of an independent woman, balancing a level of dignitary acceptance, with self-respect against a patriarchal establishment, Hammerstein inadvertently stokes issues of cultural representation.

If you can put this to one side, The Lincoln Centre Theater Production of The King and I is an absolute spectacle of musical theatre, and a triumph of stage, artistry and talent. From the leads to ensemble, there is little, is anything, not to enjoy. Annalene Beechey, stood upon the deck of Michael Yeargan’s set design frames the production triumphantly, not only holding a candle but snatching it from Deborah Kerr, the synonymous performer of the role alongside Brinner in 1956. With the abundant charm of an English rose, a dash of Julie Andrews’ thorny grit, she’s captivating to watch. Vocally foreboding, the control of tone is impressive, nary a strained note or forced delivery in earshot. 

In a moderate attempt to zhuzh up the text, snippets of modernist efforts are brought to the characters of Anna and the King of Siam. Jose Llana strikes less intimidation as the titular King, but his royal presence is evident. There’s as much a cowering adoration for the man, as there is a presence as a father. A welcome addition, Llana is accessible, warming to his humour, and stitch inducing facial expression. Timing to perfection, his delivery ricochets off any of those who are unfortunate to receive the brunt of his wit – that is, of course, except Beechey’s Anna. Naturally harmonious, the pair have instant chemistry. Individually, they excel, as a unit, their vocal melodies synchronise, their movement pieces the gleaming jewel of the production.

As the building notes of household classic Shall We Dance? ripple through the theatre, there is movement, not solely on stage. Silhouettes, bobbing in idyllic enjoyment, swaying to the tune, demonstrate the sublime attractiveness of live theatre. The necessity of insightful costume creation becomes apparent. Catherine Zuber’s pieces, which thus far have ranged from exuberantly whimsical, to gloriously vibrant, are put to the test. A magnificent gown, resplendent to replicate Beechey’s presence, it captures the tone of the production. Glamorous, elegant, but sculpted in a way to have fun.

To praise Beechey and Llana’s movement wouldn’t be enough, the weight of the costume, merely adds respect to Beechey’s ability as she laces back and forth around the Palace, all the while Llana’s control maintains a momentum, synchronising with the orchestra. Rivalled only by The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ infusion of Eastern storytelling, it fits precisely into the production, just on the cusp of overstaying its welcome, veers into a perfect amount of time, instigating the climax. Complimenting European ballet style, with fluid movements of traditional Eastern dance, its creativity is as exquisite as it’s storytelling mechanics.

Cezarah Bonner and Kok-Hwa Lie, taking on secondary roles as the Prince’s mother and Siam’s Prime Minister push their characters into the primary narrative with how successful they grasp attention. Clear, powerful vocals, bring emotion to their roles, only eclipsed by the finale between Anna and the King. Kok-Haw Lie especially selling a harrowing hurt in how Anna has ‘broken’ the King.

Attempting to stand out against illustrious staging, Ethan Le Phong’s Lun Tha suffers. Washing out, his character is extremely minimal for what is a pivotal tertiary narrative, which brings about the climax with his secretive relationship with Burmese ‘gift’ to the king, Tuptim. Tuptim, performed by Paulina Yeung, gifts us with reciting Uncle Thomas’ reading. Her meeting with Lun Tha in secret, cast in the atmospheric royal sapphires of Donald Holders lighting feels held together on her end.

Your head should never be above the King’s, so luckily, the raised Playhouse stage offers plenty of wiggle room to allow for a standing ovation. A well deserved one, for a near-perfect production whose only notable flaws lies within the skeleton of the piece itself, a product of its era – the talent involved in the production are wonders in their field. You don’t have to travel far off the map to experience an entirely new world, or revisit a familiar one. The King and I promises grandeur, and it is triumphant in delivering this.

Runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until October 26th, then continues touring: https://www.atgtickets.com/times/the-king-and-i/edinburgh-playhouse/2019-10-21

Photo Credit – Johan Persson

The Stornoway Way – The Studio, Festival Theatre

Written by Kevin MacNeil

Directed by Matthew Zajac

Touring Scotland, tickets available from Dog Star Theatre: http://www.dogstartheatre.co.uk/the-stornoway-way.html

Endlessly lyrical, Kevin MacNeil’s take on his best-selling novel lends itself to the musical format well. With each song have originality in composition, with a few notable exceptions standing out as clear favourites. To hear Gaelic sung in a natural form, with new arrangements, is a fitting match for the production. Encouraging a rejuvenation with a language by infusing it’s archaic, island tones with fresh lyricism. Naomi Stiratt, Chloe Ann-Tyler and Rachel Kennedy’s vocals, particularly in Gaelic, are a staunch reason for The Stornoway Way’s moderate success.

Awash with colourful characters, we first open on the cold, brisk blue Isle of Lewis. With a drink rich community, everyday life centres on the pursuits of merriment, ‘chicken’, and a further chaser to follow the first one. Chicken, a term for Famous Grouse Whiskey, is a lifeblood for the islanders. It’s a warming agent, a talking point for communities, and as the inhabitants gather to sing, talk life and, well, you guessed it – drink, it feels as though The Stornoway Way takes from Local Hero on its opening up of the outer Hebrides and Isles of Scotland. In reality, it plunges focus onto a singular, not very likeable, but roguishly charming hero – Roman.

Dreamer, romanticist, narcissist, and all around, a bit of an arse. Roman is the guy many would envy, charismatic with his deliberately misleading Gaelic, terrific vocals courtesy of gender-bending cast member Stirrat, but his reliance on a liquid crutch is one all too familiar. Forever patient, friend Eilidh is understandable in her frustrations with helping Roman achieve his dream by travelling to Edinburgh to record an album, only to be abandoned in return.

Maintaining a focus on Roman’s downward spiral into depression, fuelled by his love of the dram, the stage adaptation also attempts to divert a small amount of attention away. Aiming to secure further character development, as well as shoehorn in additional songs, it’s a double-edged premise. For the occasional character, such as Eva, it brings biting commentary and gripping drama, which was sorely lacking. Unfortunately, other character decisions fail to add much, eking into the length of the show which stretches itself excessively.

Roman’s characterisation fails in one key element, and it has nothing to do with performer Stiratt, who garners all she can. The issue is that the character’s motivations, while identifiable in people we encounter in day to day lives, are weak. The isolation of an island community isn’t built enough to offer a reason to extend sympathy. Psychologically, the darkening clouds surround Roman, hastening his toxic masculinity, but it isn’t until his argument with Eva where we get a sense of the self-obsessive, self-destructive manipulation he is capable of. Both Stiratt and Ann-Tyler are giving out a tremendous amount more than the script offers. Building to the keenest performance with Ann-Tyler’s broken, tired strumming’s of the guitar, lamenting her good intentions.

Its dramaturgy fails to fully capture its intention, shifting focus to the big city for a fish out of water narrative, it leaves behind an island setting – wonderfully designed, built as an aetherial, solitary space. Multi-purpose, lit wonderfully, its use as various locations is inventive, shifting from Edinburgh pub, Island chapel or ocean waves. Setting for the final scene, a remnant of what the entire production should have shifted towards, an amalgam of desperation, yet freedom is a touching moment.

Shifting to the stage, The Stornoway Way’s attempts at meta-commentary on theatrical tropes are a welcome addition, but one too many waters the joke. It reduces the narrative to contextualisation, bordering on panto territory, explaining far beyond what is required. It so desperately, valiantly wants to illustrate the dangers of alcohol’s seductive appeal, that it disconnects from the story to pursue this venture. Scatterings of investible songs, with some powerful performances, make MacNeil’s stage adaptation a venture worthy of pursuing, no doubt improving with time.