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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Once again, Actors Theatre of Indiana proves that it is a master of the black box musical – this time with their absolutely stunning production of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret. The musical delivers what is a multi- faceted piece with equal parts as allegory, as entertainment and as statement – indeed, perhaps even as a didactic warning.

Director Billy Kimmel has built his show using plenty of originality in concept and interpretation. His vision – supported by a knock-out cast, musical direction by John D. Phillips, and slick choreography by Carol Worcel, with visual touches in place through P. Bernard Killian’s set design, costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck, lights by Marciel Irener Greene and makeup design by Daniel Klingler – propels the audience back to 1931, to the opening throes of the Nazi regime, with the echoes of the 1920s’ opulence still in evidence.

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Ben Asaykwee (center) performs as the Emcee with the Kit Kat Klub dancers in ATI’s production of “Cabaret”.

As an allegory, Cabaret deftly presents the factions in place at that time, as the world tumbled down into the pit of the 30’s and early 40’s. It starts with the Emcee, our thematic narrator, who gives open warnings about the chaos which is at the brink, before being caught in the ominous web himself. Then there is Sally Bowles – the English chanteuse who, with her self indulgent and protective short-sightedness, makes a rather harsh decision in an attempt to prolong the good times she is accustomed to, reflecting what her native country did when failing in an early faceoff with the Third Reich. American novelist Cliff Bradshaw finds isolationism to be more to his liking when confronted with knowledge of the pain the Reich will bring. There is also Fräulein Schneider, the tolerant German, turning her back on happiness  and accepting her fate because, well “What Would You Do?” and Herr Schultz, a Jew who believes the oncoming cloud of Nazism cannot be so bad, because after all, he is a German. Finally, Ernst Ludwig is the true believer, the citizen taken in by the many promises that are made.

It does not seem to me that the message of potential doom in today’s world is much below the surface in this updated version of the 1966 Broadway musical. Director Kimmel subtlety advises us of the possibilities in musical numbers that ring up familiar and timely themes.

As a pure entertainment, the show is hugely successful. Ben Asaykwee leads the way as the Emcee. He has created a strikingly original version of the scandalously brazen creature – at some times nuanced and frisky, yet fearsome and threatening at others. Asaykwee does a masterful job projecting his cautionary admonitions, which seem to be this character’s purview, and he does so in a playfully effective way. His movements and attitude are such, one cannot take their eyes off him.

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Cynthia Collins as Sally Bowles sings “Maybe This Time” in ATI’s production of “Cabaret”.

Cynthia Collins absolutely seizes the starring role of Sally Bowles and flies with it. Totally convincing as the lively, party-loving, and impetuous young singer, Ms. Collins shows a fine understanding of her character’s hopes and fears – while lifting the show with her freshly innovative and dramatic renditions of “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret”.  Eric J. Olson brings a refined honesty to his portrayal of Cliff Bradshaw. Caught between the love of an exciting woman and an oppressive time in history – Olson shows the difficulty of the decisions he must make and the unsureness of whether they are best.

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From left: Eric J. Olson (Cliff Bradshaw), Cynthia Collins (Sally Bowles) and Patrick Vaughn (Ernst Ludwig) in a scene from ATI’s production of “Cabaret”.

Judy Fitzgerald blithely brings Fräulein Kost to life and Patrick Vaughn is a harsh and dedicated Ernst Ludwig, while Debra Babich and Darrin Murrell partner up as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, the star-crossed elderly couple. Ms. Babich’s and Murrell’s performances are quite poignant and provide a counterpoint of sorts from the Kit-Kat Klub and it’s seedy proceedings. The Kit Kat girls (and guys) are presented in a flashy and fleshy projection by Nicole Bridgens (Helga), Jeneé Michelle (Rosie), Ashley Saunders (Lulu), Carol Worcel (Texas), Nicholas Roman (Bobby) and Kenny Shepard (Victor). They whirl through the plethora of musical scenes at the Klub with less than subtle skills. And in the opening scene, I could not help but notice Don Farrell’s spot-on cameo appearance as the Führer.

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Debra Babich (Fraulein Schneider) and Darrin Murrell (Herr Schultz) in a scene from ATI’s production of “Cabaret”.

The wonderfully familiar score of the show gets a high grade rendition by this very talented group of performers. Without any lapses or gaps, it was a treat through-out. The costumed orchestra, led by Levi Burke, also deserves high marks as they provide an unfailing accompaniment.

Bottom-line: ATI scores yet another “must see”, with a high energy, well-produced edition of this innovative American musical. (Please note, this show has adult themes and situations.)

Cabaret continues at ATI’s Studio Theatre in the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel through November 20, 2016. You can get information about the schedule and tickets by calling 317.843.3800 or by logging onto http://www.atistage.org .

  • – Photos by Kip Shawger

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