‘Cabaret’ at St. Mark’s Players at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church by Justin Schneider

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THREE AND A HALF STARS
“It’s so tawdry and terrible and everyone’s having such a great time.” It must be a cliché at this point to use Clifford Bradshaw’s summary of 1930s Berlin as a summary of Cabaret, but it’s just about perfect – and a perfect description of the production currently running at St. Mark’s Players at the historic St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

Cabaret, the 1966 Broadway musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, has a long pedigree. The musical was based on the 1952 play I Am A Camera, itself based on Christopher Isherwood’s semi-biographical 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin. The musical (and the 1972 film adaptation) was a star vehicle and won Academy Awards for Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. Cabaret follows the relationship of American writer Cliff Bradshaw and English cabaret star Sally Bowles, set against the Nazis’ rise to power in the early ’30s. Throughout the show, the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub leads a chorus of dancers through musical numbers that are both vastly entertaining showpieces and chilling commentary on the events of the play.

Ashley Zielinski (Sally), David McMullin (Emcee) and the Kit Kat Girls perform "Wilkommen". Photo by Chuck Divine.
Ashley Zielinski (Sally), David McMullin (Emcee) and the Kit Kat Girls perform “Wilkommen.” Photo by Chuck Divine.

One wouldn’t normally think of a church as the right setting for a scandalous show like Cabaret, but St. Mark’s works beautifully for the purpose. Under Director Rick Hayes, the design team has done a fantastic job repurposing a sacred space into a delightfully tawdry Berlin. Lighting by Jerry M. Dale Jr. and costumes by Ceci Albert and Lisa Brownsword do a terrific job of setting the scene. And the music, provided by a live orchestra under J.N. Wickert III, sounds especially good with the church’s acoustics. There’s something decadent about the whole thing juxtaposing Berlin’s grand architecture and high culture with the seedy nightlife of its citizens. And the club scenes are impressive enough to match the space – they’re worth the price of admission just by themselves. There’s a small platform at the back of the performance area, but the cast proves adept at transforming the open space into the Klub with a few strategically placed tables and chairs.

Well, the music, the party atmosphere, and the girls. The dancers at the Kit Kat Klub (Rosemary Lane, Nila Kay, Heather Nadolny, Nikki Gerber, Meg Glassco, Cassandra Prickett, KJ Jacks, Toby Nelson, and Jill Vohr) are really the stars of the show. They vamp and gyrate and belt their way through the production, and if a few dance steps are off or there’s a stumble in the kick line, it doesn’t really matter. Both actors and characters are clearly having such a good time that they’re impossible not to like, and the atmosphere as the dancers spill out from the stage towards the audience is so electric – so nightclub-like – that it feels like someone is about to hop in your lap and ask you to buy them a drink. I’d pick favorites, but I think my girlfriend might kill me.

As the Emcee, the talented David McMullin is charmingly naughty. There’s no menace or seduction to this Emcee, though, an interesting take on the character. McMullin has given us a host who seems to genuinely care about us having a good time, one who lets the music and the party atmosphere do the seducing for him. And let’s not forget the Kit Kat Boys: Rudy Schreiber Jr. is also funny doubling as a prostitute-seeking sailor, while the focus on Elijah Lawrence as Bobby, a same-sex fling from Bradshaw’s past, lets Lawrence show a bit more dramatic range. And while we’re talking about the Klub, then we have to talk about Sally Bowles. Flighty, vain, optimistic, seductive, and self-centered by turns, Ashley Zielinski seems born to play the part. Her singing voice is excellent, her reactions perfectly tuned. When I found myself equally charmed and frustrated by the character, I knew that Zielinski was hitting all the right notes.

Moving to Berlin’s other inhabitants, Mary Ayala-Bush’s landlady Fraulein Schneider is a standout. The subplot featuring her ill-fated romance with Jewish fruit-seller Herr Schultz (Stephen P. Yednock) is cut from the more familiar film version, and has the potential to seem overly sappy – there’s a lovesong about a pineapple, for goodness sake. But Ayala-Bush pours her heart into the part, demonstrating why Fraulein Schneider can be one of the biggest show-stealing parts in Cabaret. And that makes it especially important that Yednock’s Schultz can keep up with her. And he does.

Mary Ayala-Bush (Fraulein Schneider) and Stephen Yednock (Herr Schultz) perform "It Couldn't Please Me More" (The Pineapple Song). Photo by Chuck Divine.
Mary Ayala-Bush (Fraulein Schneider) and Stephen Yednock (Herr Schultz) perform “It Couldn’t Please Me More” (The Pineapple Song). Photo by Chuck Divine.

As for the remaining performances, David Wilder looks the part as the nebbishy Cliff, and shows some real tenderness towards the end of the play, but his dedication to being unassuming, along with a less-than-stellar singing voice, leads to him being overshadowed in most of his scenes. Luckily, Zielinski provides enough chemistry for the both of them. And as Bradshaw’s shady acquaintance Ernst Ludwig, Mark Allen’s acting was likewise overshadowed by a comically bad German accent. That doesn’t stop Allen from making a strong impact during one of the play’s most pivotal scenes.

Ayala-Bush’s performance as Fraulein Schneider reveals some staging issues with the production, though. All of the scenes in Schneider’s apartment building take place on the small, narrow stage at the back of the space, trapping the characters in a static line. While others suffer from the staging as well, Ayala-Bush especially deserved the freedom to let her character move around the room. The nightclub scenes worked so well in part because they used all of the available space, and I question the decision to trap half of the cast on a tiny island at the back of the playing space. The ending of the piece also suffered from being restricted to a small portion of the stage – it was as if all the energy of the evening was suddenly trapped without achieving a release. What could have been a moving moment instead felt like the first half of a catharsis that never came.

On opening night, the production was also plagued by technical issues involving the sound system. Most of the actors had to deal with microphones that cut in and out through the night. One character lost her mic when she turned her head in a certain direction; another’s mic pack seemed to lose signal when she moved too close to the other actors. Musical numbers and straight scenes both fell prey to the issue, and the real tragedy is that the actors had strong enough voices that the microphones seemed unnecessary. As it was, one moment a tender discussion is being drowned out by the orchestra, and the next moment the volume was kicking in too high just as the actor is belting out at the top of their lungs. The problem ranged from distracting to painful over the course of the evening.

I would consider the sound issue a minor problem if it didn’t do so much to disrupt the performance, and the cast should be commended in their professionalism for soldiering through.

St. Mark’s Players’ production of Cabaret is definitely worth seeing, especially for the Kit Kat Klub numbers. If the technical issues can be corrected, I think it would be a big hit.

Running Time:Two hours and 45 minutes long, with a fifteen-minute intermission.

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Cabaret plays through May 19, 2013 at St. Mark’s Players at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church – 301 A St. SE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 546-9670, or purchase them online.