Direct And To The Point: Cabaret

CabaretThis post is inspired by Roundabout’s current (remounted) production of Cabaret, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams. Although I was familiar with the music and had a loose notion of the plot, this was the first time I’d ever actually seen a production of this show. This is perhaps the least familiar I’ve been with a show that I’m posting about, so I’m still very much in “thinking mode” about this one, but here we go…

– Who’s story is this?

I’m not sure who’s story this is. That seems completely dumb to say, but it’s true. I had always assumed that it was Sally’s story. Or perhaps Sally and Cliff’s story. Maybe that comes from having seen Liza’s face associated with it more times than I can count. And I guess it is her story. But to me, the more interesting story is the one between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. In Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz’s story you see the rising Nazi sentiment of Berlin destroy the possibility of two people finally being able to share their lives together. In Sally and Cliff’s story, the Nazi’s presence is almost a sidebar. Due to the way this piece is structured (the effect that the Nazi presence has on the story, the way its presence is revealed and songs like “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “If You Could See Her”), it seems like the Nazi sentiment and the way it made cowards and enemies out of neighbors was at least one of the concepts that Kander and Ebb intended to punctuate. Making the story Sally’s seems a little asking people to pay attention to the cop who’s writing out a parking ticket, while there’s also “subplot” revolving around a cop who’s engaged in a high-speed car chase. But just because something is more interesting doesn’t mean it’s where the story is.

– About the sex.

There are a lot of show numbers with in this musical. Many of the songs are presented as the various acts of the Kit Kat Club. Which is to say, many of the songs in the show do not advance the plot with their lyrics. Rather they tend to act as commentary on the story. Since that connection is not overtly present in the lyrics, I think it’s important make sure that the staging and choreography focus on highlighting those parallels. Most of the numbers in this production did that very well, but the few that didn’t just kind of passed by as naughty nightclub numbers.

– Sensitivity vs. Survival.

In this story we find two couples – one younger and one older – but both with a sensitive man and a survivalist woman. While the details of these relationships differ, I find it interesting that the need to survive is what ultimately ends them both.

– About Sally

This production paints Sally as a very infantile sort of woman, which, while it may be a valid option, is completely unappealing to me. I think Sally is absolutely the life of the party. But I think being the life of the party is how she’s survived living in a very cold and difficult world. She’s the life of the party because she her life depends on it. She’s made of steel, even if she is unable to ultimately free herself from the destructive patterns of her life. Even in her opening number, “Don’t Tell Mama”, I think the role-play of playing sweet and innocent is much more exciting if it’s played by someone who is actually a strong woman. I mean, it’s fun to watch a cat play, but it’s much MORE exciting to see a tiger playing. The thrill of danger and power that can be turned on at any point is much more engaging than knowing you’ve already seen the full extent of what the damage would be. Plus I think letting Sally be a stronger character fits better with “Mein Herr”.  I also think this affects how we experience her decision to get an abortion and go back to the Kit Kat Klub at the end of the show. If she’s been forged by the necessities of her life and is someone who has had to take care of herself, that strength and determination makes what she does a decision of survival. If she’s infantile, it makes it a childish impulse.

– About Cliff.

Bill Heck turns in a great performance as Cliff. However, I think this role ultimately makes more sense with someone who is more of an underdog. Cliff stops working for Ernst and ultimately leaves Berlin as a result of not being able to stomach the rising Nazi sentiment, specifically as it relates to Herr Schultz. I think this kind of response is something that makes the most sense if someone is an outsider, an underdog, someone who’s not one of the cool kids. If you’re a strapping alpha male, it’s easier to bury your head in the sand and stay put, because you can convince yourself that things aren’t actually that bad in your life. Ernst still likes him and still has good paying work for him. He’s got the girl (who might be pregnant with his child). It’s significantly easier to stay put. I think Cliff has to be able to empathize deeply and personally with what Herr Schultz is experiencing, in order to up root everything and run away. I think if Cliff is that underdog, who is well aware of how ugly bulling can get, and he’s watching the situation get serious for Herr Schultz, then he knows the only thing he can do to protect Sally is take her and get the hell out of Dodge. I also think you don’t want Cliff to ever seem like a viable physical threat to Sally. I think once he becomes a potential physical threat, he’s just like every other guy she’s ever been with. There were a few moments in this production where Cliff briefly resembled Stanley Kowalski, which I don’t think serves the story in any way. I think the tragedy of Cliff is that he’s not strong enough to save Sally from herself.

– The MC.

I thought Alan Cumming did a marvelous job balancing both the notion of having fun with his role as host, yet also giving weight to the gravity of the situations. I think that is key for this role – having someone who is fun and unpredictable, but can let the mask drop in the second act. For that reason, I would love to see Christian Borle do this role as I think he does a great job at being able to flip between those two extremes. I also wonder if the MC is a figure that Sally constantly sees. What I mean by that is, in this production, the MC, as our narrator, wafts in and out of scenes – sometimes as commentary, sometimes as set dressing – without the other characters acknowledging him. Which I think is right. But I wonder if there’s milage to be gained in Sally being the only one to be aware of him in the scenes outside of the Kit Kat Klub. Frankly, it might just make her look crazy, but I would be interested in trying it.

– The Elephant in the Room.

I love the way Ernst is revealed as being involved with the Nazi party. I think it’s incredibly effective and I love that you don’t see it coming. However, I wonder if more could be done to build up more of a peripheral Nazi presence before that without diminishing that payoff. At one point Cliff is arguing with Sally about the severity of what is going on with the Nazis and he says something to the effect of “haven’t you been paying attention to what’s in the papers?!” implying that you would have to be completely obtuse to NOT know how big of a threat this was. But, quite honestly, I didn’t have any awareness that Cliff had been paying attention to it to begin with. As an audience member, I know we’re in Berlin in the 1930s, but what specifically that means with regard to the cultural saturation of the Nazi party, I don’t immediately have a context for. Especially, since no mention of it is made in the show for so long.

– Maybe This Time.

The song “Maybe This Time” functions sort of like an aside. It pops up right in the middle of a scene an presents us with Sally’s inner monologue. In this production, they staged this by pulling Sally downstage in isolated light in front of Cliff. Which is a nice visual and certainly helps us understand that the song is now commenting on the scene. But given that Cliff (and what he’s saying) are the emotional impetus for the song, I think it might be stronger to have Sally upstage of him so that she can both sing her nightclub number and still visually reference the reason that she’s singing that number.

– Life is a Cabaret.

This song marks Sally’s return to the Kit Kat Klub. For this production, they had her dressed in a very simple black sheath dress. This might be the most that her body’s been covered for the entire production. I’m not sure this costume choice really serves this moment. While I could see Sally’s character justifying to herself that this moment is about taking back the reigns of her life, ultimately it’s putting her back in a state of victimhood, at the mercy of the Kit Kat Klub. As such, I think part of the awfulness of returning to the Kit Kat Klub is being forced back into the skimpy outfits and having to perform for any man who happens to be there. (As a side note, I would also like to see her outfits be a little less revealing over the course of her living with Cliff. I understand that she’s a person who doesn’t really feel the need to cover up. But I think when you’re in a relationship that feels safe – and I think she has to allow herself to feel safe and at home to some degree in her relationship with Cliff in order for us to feel any sort of loss when they fall apart – the need to constantly be showing leg or cleavage subsides. Also, given the fact that they reference it being cold enough outside for everyone to need coats, I imagine Cliff’s apartment might also be a little chilly.) My other quibble with this moment in the show, was that the end of this song sounded exactly like everyone else I’ve ever heard sing it. This is the climax of the show and Sally’s breaking point. I think the phrasing of that should feel personal.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Direct And To The Point: Violet

This post is inspired by the production of Violet that’s recently been revived by Roundabout Theatre, directed by Leigh Silverman. This is the first production of this show to grace the Great White Way. I was first introduced to this show in college and absolutely fell in love. I needed to get this post written ASAP because I’m about to leave to go play Violet in a different production of Violet with The Commons Group up in Waitsfield, VT, and I imagine I may have new or different thoughts to add. So, away we go…Violet Playbill

– In general.

I was rather sad about the loss of intimacy. Granted, my introduction to this show was in a small black box theater, so that certainly colors my visions of what I want from a production. But the material, both the book and music, lend themselves to a more realistic (and less showy) performance. (I actually think this show would make a great little indie film. I don’t know many indie film makers who shoot musicals, but a girl can dream.) I imagine it’s got to be tricky to make the American Airlines Theater (or any theater that seats upwards of 700 people) feel intimate. However, Once managed to create intimacy at the Bernard B. Jacobs (which seats over 1,000), so it has to be possible.

– On My Way.

I think it may be important that we don’t see Violet smile until “Luck of the Draw”. Musically, “On My Way” certainly has joyful element. However, Violet reveals to Flick in a later scene how she had to lie to herself and act like it wouldn’t be such a big deal in order to muster the courage to make this trip. To me, that indicates that “On My Way” is heavily dosed with anxiety and terror for Violet. This is the very last thing she can do to try to fix her face. And while it will be amazing if it works, if it fails, there will be no other recourse. She will be doomed to live out the rest of her life alone as the monstrously deformed woman up on the mountain. Also, in the later scene with Flick, Flick says “most people think faith healers are frauds…as a rule.” This is something that Violet can only argue by saying “what if he’s the exception?” She’s a smart cookie. She can’t argue that he’s not a fraud. She can only argue that he might not be a fraud, which is far from a guarantee that he’ll be able to heal her. Additionally, “On My Way” marks the point in our story where Violet has to go out into the world, to be seen by a whole new group of people. If it’s bad to be viewed as hideous by the same townspeople you’ve known for the past 25 years, it’s got to be substantially worse to have to venture into fresh ridicule and disgust.

– Luck of the Draw.

In this production, there were some changes made to the book and score from the original Off Broadway production. One of these changes comes toward the beginning of “Luck of the Draw”. Originally, the lyrics read as follows:

Father: All you got’s a pair of queens and nothing more. Once you bet, you get to draw some. That’s what losta queens are for.
Young Violet: A penny?
Father: That’s a pair a queens.
Young Violet: A nickel?
Father: There’s the bet I saw.

In the current version, the lyrics are sung in this way:
Father: All you got’s a pair of queens and nothing more. Once you bet, you get to draw some. That’s what losta queens are for.
Young Violet: [no response]
Father: [as Young Violet] A penny? [As himself] That’s a pair a queens.
Young Violet: [no response]
Father: [as Young Violet] A nickel? [As himself] There’s the bet I saw.

While I think this is a fun little change, I don’t think it ultimately works. With this change we don’t really get to see Young Violet learning to play the game or be invested in wanting to play the game. It also makes Father’s first win over Young Violet seem more like extortion rather than a hand that she played poorly and lost. I don’t think this serves to develop the relationship that Father and Young Violet have. I think one of the really lovely components of their relationship is that he treats her, largely, like an adult.

– All to Pieces.

I feel like “All to Pieces” might be the first time we really see joy in Violet. She finally gets to put on “the show” of what it would be like to be all these gorgeous, sexy women that she’s been studying for years. That being said, I don’t think it’s goofy. I think she’s having a great time, but I think she’s dead serious about it. Which is why she gets so upset with Flick and Monty when she realizes they have stopped paying attention.

– Always Be Storytelling.

With “Let It Sing” and “Raise Me Up” in particular, I think it’s incredibly important to make sure that you are actively storytelling. These songs are so powerful as music, that it’s easy for them to just become about the singing and the music. Which I might be able to support in a concert format, but at the theater it causes me to start thumbing through my program. Plus, I think they actually play a huge role in the arc of the story.

– Lay Down Your Head

I think there’s a huge opportunity for comedy in “Lay Down Your Head”. Perhaps this stems from my belief that falling in love always makes fools of us. In this song Violet is singing Monty a lullaby. However, during the bridge she starts to get caught up with how much she’s feeling and the music crescendos and, without a breath, moves back into the chorus. I think within that swell it’s possible for Monty to stir slightly (because Violet’s singing has gotten a bit louder) and for Violet to have to immediately switch gears back into the lullaby to get him to resume sleeping. I’ve never seen it done, but I think it could be brilliant.

– Down the Mountain

In this production, the choice was made to have Young Violet come out for “Down the Mountain” with blood on her face. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this choice. (In the previous version that I had seen, she appeared without blood.) On the one hand, the blood is certainly visually striking. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s necessary. And I feel like it potentially highlights some logistical issues. If someone gets a severe cut to the face, that’s going to bleed profusely. From a first aid standpoint you’re going to want to bind that, especially if you have you have to carry someone all the way down the mountain to get to the doctor. Without the blood (it seems plausible to me in a show where we never see Violet’s scar, that we wouldn’t see the blood from the inciting incident) I think it allows the focus to be on the emotion of the scene. I guess I’m leaning toward the notion that blood is too strong of a visual for that moment on stage. I’m not sure.

– Last Time I Came to Memphis.

“Last Time I Came to Memphis” replaced “You’re Different” in this production, and for my taste, I prefer “You’re Different”. In “You’re Different” what Monty is essentially saying is “you’re weird…but I think that’s what I like about you”. In “Last Time I Came to Memphis” Monty is basically saying “I like loose, drunk women”. In both instances, this is a song that Violet hears – with “You’re Different” she’s pretending to be asleep, with “Last Time I Came to Memphis” the scene has been restructured such that she’s awake. To me, hearing someone say “I think I like you, even though you’re weird” is much more appealing than “I sleep with lots of women”. The first one makes me inclined to want to actually develop a relationship with them, where as the second one is kind of repulsive. At the end of the show, when Violet thinks she’s been healed, she comes back to the soldiers base to see Monty in the hopes that they will like happily ever after together. I think he has to be likable in order for that to make sense. Monty’s a bit of a hot head, but “You’re Different” allows us to see that he’s also sweet. Part of the reason that Flick is the better match for Violet in the end is that he’s more mature and is potentially able to love her in a real and adult way. Monty, on the other hand, is young enough to think that the Vietnam War will be exciting (a reminder that the show is set in 1964, at which point the US has already been involved in conflict for the past 9 years) and immature enough to not know how to interact with Violet after they sleep together other than buying her candy and soda. In fact Violet refers to him as being just a boy multiple times. To this end, I also think that Monty should be cast as a bit younger and a bit slighter. Colin Donnell does a fine job with his portrayal, but he’s definitely a man. If Colin Donnell is being sent to Vietnam, I think “Well, you might come back. You look like you can take care of yourself.” Where as with someone of a smaller build who looks a bit younger, I’m more inclined to think “Oh my god, you’re just a baby. You don’t know the first thing about war and the only way you’re coming home is in a body bag.” As morbid as that sounds, I think that’s what you want to tug at in your audience when Monty is leaving for Vietnam – the fact that these were kids being sent off to die.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below.The more the merrier!

Direct and to the Point: Talley’s Folly

This post is inspired by Roundabout’s recent production of Talley’s Folly. A reminder that these show specific posts are not necessarily meant to be a review in the traditional sense. Rather, they are meant to speak to what I think the key elements needed to make that piece really hum – a perspective that I think is much easier to attain when you’re just sitting in the audience. So, here we go…

This might possibly be my most favorite play. Ever. The humor, the ferociousness, the boathouse. I love it and I can’t wait to work on it one day. These are my thoughts…Talley's Folly Script Cover

– Sweet Tooth.

This is an incredibly sweet play. And the pieces fit together perfectly. As such, I think it’s important to make sure it doesn’t get too sweet. I think this can be done (or helped) by allowing the salty parts to be salty. Which is to say, allow the arguments to be real arguments. These two people are stubborn and afraid, both of which are excellent qualities to build quick tempers. The arguments are the only conflict in the play. Let them rip. With in the first few pages of the script Matt says, “Sally, one of us had better go for a walk and cool off. Both of us can’t be angry.”…which makes more sense if one or both of them are angry at this early point in the story. Ultimately, I think the whole play is an argument. It’s an argument that’s happening in the right way (both parties stay engaged in the discussion, neither one stonewalls the other) and for the right reasons, but they are fighting against each other (or for each other, in Matt’s case) right up until they’re able to see they’re actually on the same side. If this couple is really going to make it, they need to have the argument out. Plus, what’s more satisfying than love that’s overcome a huge obstacle?

– Eggs.

Matt’s speech about how we are all eggs is the crux of the play. Nobody wants to be cracked. While Matt has come for the sole purpose of cracking himself open to Sally, this is not in any way easy for him. If anything it has a sort of suicidal/sacrificial feeling to it. He is terrified to expose himself in this way. This is the only thing that MIGHT win him the only girl he loves. And there is a distinct possibility that once she knows about who he is, that she will want nothing to do with him. If there were anything else he could do to win Sally – ANYTHING else – he would do that. But nothing else will do and he’s driving himself bonkers with how much he loves her. Sally, on the other hand, is fighting tooth and nail to keep Matt from cracking her shell. She is certain that if he were to know her full history that he would shun her. She wants desperately to bury how much she loves Matt. It’s only by burying any trace of that that she can continue living in the safety of her own shell.

– Him.

Matt should be lovable, but not without darkness. He chooses to live on the side of lightness, but he has both sides. He’s become a clown out of necessity. But in order to really appreciate the need behind that reflex, we have to see the mask drop. It might only happen once (in fact, it probably shouldn’t happen much more than once), but it has to happen. Humor is an attempt to distract or diffuse tension. But he’s got to get real (and vulnerable) at some point if he’s going to get Sally to take him seriously.

– Her.

Sally is a hellfire. She may have once been the golden child who would continue the family business, but I would wager that she was never a wallflower. As Matt says about her, “Boy, you get angry, you really are a mountain daughter aren’t you.” Additionally, by the time we meet her, she has nothing left to lose. If she wasn’t already, she’s become quite the rebel – getting fired from Sunday school for endorsing unionization and intentionally bringing Matt home for dinner as way of trying to show her family how narrow minded they are. She’s also something of a caged animal with regard to this situation. Matt is systematically stripping away reasons she’s used to keep him at bay. What she feels for him is tremendous and she violently wants not to feel it. She can avoid (she thinks) being humiliated and heartbroken if she can just fight him off.

– Pedal to the Medal.

Both of these characters are super smart and seldom at a loss for words. Like a fencing match, each statement is to defend, deflect, attack or egg on the opposition. And at any point it’s conceivable that Sally could walk out and leave. As such, the pace can be pretty fast. If there’s a pause, it can’t allow her walk out. Similarly, with Matt’s Probable Lit speech, I think the pace needs to be pretty brisk. This is something that he can’t linger in. If he lingers in it, he risks getting really emotional about it. Which it not the idea. I’ll grant that he may have to be figuring out how he’s going to say it as he’s going along (since he’s never voiced this out loud) but he can’t slow down with it. What he wants to do is convey the information, but stay out of the experience of reliving it. And to get it over with as fast as possible. He knows Sally has a story to tell (according to Aunt Lottie). He knows he’ll have to play his cards before she shows hers. He has to say “this is the whole, entire, ugly deal with me”, before he can demand the whole deal from her. I think if he slows down in telling this story (or is too clear in telling it), that makes it look a little calculated. It makes it look like “I’m telling you this story because I actually already know your whole deal and we’re more perfect for each other than you know – and I’ve known it for months – and I’m just waiting for you to get with the program.” Instead of “Jesus Christ, this is a mad leap of faith and I have NO IDEA what will happen after I vomit all of this information at you.”

– Details.

In the first couple of pages, Matt says, “Actually, I came here to talk to your father. That’s the way I’ve been told these things are done in the South.” To which Sally responds, “You’re not in the South. You’re in the Midwest.” And then continues talking about the differences between the South and the Midwest. I think in order for the dialogue to continue on as scripted, Sally can’t actually hear the first part of his line. She can hear “in the South” which cues her indignation at being called a Southern. But I don’t think she can hear much of the rest. If she hears it, she’ll know explicitly why he came. There will immediately need to be a whole other conversation. I don’t think she fully knows why he’s come until much later when he says that he’s been meaning to talk to her about changing her name.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below.The more the merrier!