‘Cabaret’ at Riverside Center Dinner Theater by Julia L. Exline

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Riverside Center Dinner Theater presents Cabaret – a darkly decadent Tony award-winning musical with  a fabulous score by John Kander and Fred Ebb – about the quiet rise of the Third Reich in Germany’s overtly sexual metropolis – Berlin. Set in the late 1920s at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, Co-Directors Patrick A’Hearn and Penny Ayn Maas offer a look into a world of debauchery, excess, and the hushed, stalking destruction that awaits.

Scenic Designer David P. Stock uses spiral metal staircases and railings to connect a makeshift bridge, above which swings an oversized, lit-up frame and a sign that reads, “Kit Kat Klub.” A splatter of red paint on the otherwise black stage adds a touch of grunginess, and red lamps that sit on each audience member’s table are asked to stay lit, so as to create a true cabaret effect. Lighting designer Phil Carlucci uses red as the dominant color of the production, and spotlights are angled as to create a silhouetted shadow of the actor in the background, which is a timeless and classy effect that I regularly see used at Riverside. Costumes by Aaron P. Mastin leave little to the imagination, as glitzy, glittery lingerie sweeps the stage in waves! Fringed dresses, cigarette holders, and bob-style haircuts harken back to the 1920’s, as well as the crisp suits worn by some male characters. Musical direction by Jason J. Michael is also well executed.

Nicole Foret Oberleitner (Sally Bowles) and The Kit Kat Klub girls. Photo courtesy of Riverside Center Dinner Theater.

Alongside his team of dancers, Emcee, the host at the Kit Kat Klub (Tommy McNeal) warms up the audience with the lively, friendly song Willkommen. Emcee, a flamboyant man with a somewhat macabre leer about him, tells the audience to “leave your troubles outside. So, life is disappointing? Forget it. In here, life is beautiful.” Emcee remains on the stage for the majority of the production, whether singing a song (“Two Ladies” is especially entertaining) or ominously stalking the shadows, watching everyone else. His ghoulish-yet-fascinating character is a complex one, and McNeal does a fine job representing him.

Carol Hagy (Fraulein Schneider) and Ron Sarro (Herr Schultz). Photo courtesy of Riverside Center Dinner Theater.

The main plot revolves around a love affair between a cookie-cutter American novelist named Clifford Bradshaw (Mason Reich) and a wild, unpredictable cabaret singer, Sally Bowles (Nicole Foret Oberleitner). Oberleitner delivers a fun performance with “Don’t Tell Mama,” a racy song with quick dance steps to match. Bradshaw, a seemingly naïve foreign visitor, begins to worry about the stressed political climate, to which Sally responds, “It’s only politics, and what does that have to do with us?” The acting from this pair is well-done, but scenes are consistently stolen from them due to the fine chemistry between Ron Sarro  (Herr Schultz) and Carol Hagy (Fraulein Schneider). Schneider, a landlady who rents a room to Bradshaw, maintains a flirtatious friendship with Schultz, shown in the delightfully playful and heart-warming song, “It Couldn’t Please Me More” [“The Pineapple Song”]. The two become engaged, and, as Schultz is Jewish, this becomes an issue with some of her peers. As the musical progresses, the dance routines begin to take on dark, Nazi overtones such as bold gestures and loud stomps. Choreographer Penny Ayn Maas does a fine job at making these changes gradual and subtle, as the plot itself subtly changes with Nazi infusion. Relationships become strained, and hard decisions have to be made.

Towards the end, a reprisal of “Willkommen” is sung, only this time, it is with a harsh, almost violent tone, as opposed to the friendly version at the beginning. And so Berlin, once the European epicenter of artistic innovation and sexuality, is immerged in war. Who could sense the danger, and did they get out in time? Who waited too long to act? In one of the most shocking finales that I have seen, everyone finally wakes up…but some are too late to be saved.

Riverside Center Dinner Theater usually favors lighthearted fare for their entertainment, so Cabaret is a particularly ambitious undertaking for them. While the subject matter is extremely powerful, the musical is also filled with lively music and energetic dance numbers, as well as snarky humor. They have found a happy medium between light and dark.

Mason Reich (Clifford Bradshaw) and Nicole Foret Oberleitner (Sally Bowles). Photo courtesy of Riverside Center Dinner Theater.

Cabaret is a worthy bet for an entertaining and powerful evening at Riverside Center Dinner Theater.

Cabaret plays through April 29, 2012 at Riverside Center Dinner Theater – 95 Riverside Parkway, in Fredericksburg, VA. For tickets call (540) 370-4300. For the Cabaret dinner menu, click here.

Featured Picture: Tommy McNeal (Emcee) and the Kit Kat Klub girls. Photo courtesy of Riverside Center Dinner Theater.