Review: University Theatre gives Stage Too! shining inauguration with 'Cabaret'

Sunday, November 16, 2003

The University Theatre's Stage Too! performance space was inaugurated Friday evening with the opening of the Kander and Ebb musical "Cabaret." Directed by John Staniunas, "Cabaret" makes the most of the creative possibilities generated by the new theater.

Stage Too! is located entirely on the cavernous Crafton-Preyer Theatre stage. On three sides, the audience is seated on risers, and on the fourth side, they are placed at tables on the floor and in chairs in the surrounding balcony in order to simulate a nightclub atmosphere. The actors' entrances and exits are made from all sides and corners of the room.

This environmental -- as opposed to the traditional proscenium style -- stage allows the audience to be an intimate part of the setting, as they enter into the enclosed world of the Kit Kat Club in 1929 Berlin. Here the performers and patrons take refuge from the rising tide of Nazism. In the "anything goes" atmosphere presided over by the Emcee, they engage in lives of frenetic debauchery in an attempt to avoid the greater political and social evil always threatening to crush them from the outside.

The Emcee, played with great panache and flair by Matthew G. Simon, is the master in charge of this drama. He supervises every turn and twist of plot and every shift of scene. He pulls the audience in to witness the "show within the show," the story of the doomed Sally Bowles and Cliff Bradshaw as portrayed by the doomed members of the Kit Kat Club themselves. As the evil of the outside world slowly closes in, the Emcee becomes a mirror image of Hitler, manipulating the citizens of his little world toward their own destruction.

As the nightclub singer Sally Bowles, Allison Gabbard conveys just the right of amount of desperate frivolity. She reveals that Sally's flightiness is really a front for the loneliness, fear and self-loathing to which she eventually succumbs. In singing "Maybe This Time," Gabbard truly finds the heart of the Sally character.

Christopher Wheatley's portrayal of the struggling American writer Clifford Bradshaw deftly reveals the writer's journey from naivete to bitterness. Gabbard and Wheatley shine in the early number "Perfectly Marvelous," where they establish the playfulness of their relationship.

Carter Waite and Julie Maykowski are splendid as Herr Schultz and Fräulein Schneider. Their performances are touched by pathos and humor that make this secondary love plot as compelling as that of Sally and Cliff. Averyn Mackey is a funny, sexy Fräulein Kost.

Staniunas' conception of a reduced cast that plays multiple parts reinforces the "show within a show" concept as each character is called upon to fill whatever parts are needed. The Kit Kat Korus is a multi-talented group of actors whose dancing is particularly impressive. "The Kickline" that opens the second act was a showstopper. As choreographed by Eric Avery, it foreshadows the encroaching political realities as the campy, sexy chorus number dissolves into images of goose-stepping Nazi soldiers.

Staniunas's choreography and blocking in the rest of the show are fascinating to watch as he makes maximum use of the stage space. The actors move smoothly from one side of the 360-degree stage to the other, treating the audience on all sides to a complete performance. As the chorus and Emcee spin through the complex choreography of "Money," that big production number takes over the entire space, thematically reflecting the power of money that "makes the world go round."

The manipulation of the set and props is fascinating choreography in itself. The costumes, designed by Beth Collins, appropriately reflect the personalities of these complex characters, and the lighting designed by Brent Lind makes fine use of the new performing space.

There are some balance problems with a few of the musical numbers. Occasionally, the voices of both chorus and principals cannot be heard as the singers move into some of the lower vocal ranges of this difficult music. The intimate space helps combat the problems of projection that would be very distracting in a larger theater.

However, this production of "Cabaret" is a resounding success, and Stage Too! promises an exciting future for the University Theatre.

The show continues Wednesday through Nov. 23.

-- Sarah Young is a lecturer in Kansas University's English department. She can be reached at