The Theatre Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust co-production of Cabaret has a stunning opening and a striking closing — it's what happens in between that falls short.
The John Kander and Fred Ebb musical has plenty on its plate. It showcases one of the best sets of songs from any show of the last 50 years, wrapped up in a story that, expertly dramatized in its waning moments, concludes with imprisonment and death in a concentration camp.
You can downplay the somber ending in favor of the exceptional musical score, but the best productions bring both to the fore, embracing the complexity. Director Peter Rothstein certainly does that, but despite his best efforts, the show feels unfocused and cluttered in its execution.
Set in Berlin in the early 1930s, when a free-loving society was being replaced by the Nazis' reign of terror, Cabaret exists in two worlds. There is the story of American Cliff Bradshaw, who becomes enchanted with and then disillusioned by Berlin — the part is not-so-loosely based on the life of Christopher Isherwood, who wrote the original story. Then there is the Kit Kat Klub and its emcee.
A production of Cabaret lives and dies with its emcee, and Tyler Michaels was born to play the role. Lithe and limber, Michaels brings a commanding presence from his opening moment, when he climbs down from the balcony for his grand entrance. He is more than the master of ceremonies at the club, he is the emcee for the larger story, almost always on stage somewhere, observing.
His signature moments are all here, from "Two Ladies" (done, as in recent productions, with a female and a male actor) and "The Money Song" to "If You Could See Her," a jolly tap number that ends with a striking, dark message. Michaels is a riveting stage presence throughout and gives a tremendous performance from beginning to end.
There are also strong performances in supporting roles, led by Sally Wingert and Jim Detmer as the doomed older lovers Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Their gentle love affair really is the tragedy here, as their chance for companionship in their august years is destroyed by the forces transforming Germany.
The trouble comes with Cliff and Sally Bowles. These are always tough roles to play. Cliff is written mainly as an interloper — arriving in Berlin, observing what he sees around him, and then escaping before he gets caught in the machinery. Sean Dooley plays the role too broadly, slipping closer to melodrama than this quiet observer should.
The creators did Sally Bowles no favors. She is supposed to be a mediocre singer at best who, in turn, gets a string of dynamic, even legendary, songs to sing. Kira Lace Hawkins has the pipes to bring Kit Kat Klub tunes like "Mein Herr" to life, while also offering tremendous renditions of "Cabaret" and "Maybe This Time." The trouble is that we never really connect with the character; Hawkins's acting felt like marking time to get to the next song.
That hole in the center of the show is a hard one to fill and is exacerbated by the structure and pacing of the piece. The Act One break comes a few songs earlier than usual here, leaving the audience to head out into the lobby with Sally's commanding "Maybe This Time" instead of the darker "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." In the latter, true allegiances are uncovered and the lock-step nightmare of the future comes into focus. It's certainly a downer of an act-ending number, but it leaves the audience with a sense of dread coming into the second act — one that is appropriate considering the play's denouement.
Rothstein has been waiting a long time to direct Cabaret, and there is a sense that he tossed every concept he's had over the years into this production. That leaves us with a show peppered with plenty of strong, even stunning moments, but one that cannot hold together as a whole.