Theater » Theater Feature

Life’s a Bitch

Cabaret at Theatre Memphis; August: Osage County at Playhouse.



I can't quite figure out what went wrong with Cabaret. Theatre Memphis had all the ingredients for a hit on its hands: a popular musical, an exceptional cast, a director with a reputation for excellence. Christopher McCollum built a lean, Caligari-inspired set for the show's Kit Kat girls to play on. But in spite of all this, Kander and Ebb's celebrated musical story about star-crossed lovers in Nazi-era Germany just lies there like a drugged-up rent girl, without much charm or inspiration. Or even titillation.

Cabaret, inspired by Christopher Isherwood's story "Goodbye to Berlin" and the subsequent play I Am a Camera, shows three snapshots of Germany during Hitler's rise to power. First, there's a sentimental Berlin, where a little old German landlady and a little old Jewish grocer might laugh and make loving, bawdy metaphors over a bowl of fruit. There's also a decadent, enticing Berlin, where transvestites and taxi dancers swill gin and dance in a seemingly endless celebration of the flesh. And then there's the Berlin where Nazis multiply like cancer cells and metastasize.

Simply said, this Cabaret needs more Nazis. It needs a lot more Nazis. By the time the cast sings the eerie "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," the audience should feel the earth tilt on its axis. By the time it's revived, stomachs should turn with revulsion while voices soar and inspirational words ring out in the theater. At Theatre Memphis, the Nazis are little more than politically repugnant thugs and polite train conductors. Their persuasiveness and pervasiveness are invisible.

Jonathan Christian, the fantastic Zaza in last season's La Cage aux Folles, is never given anything interesting to do as Cabaret's vaguely menacing Emcee. He does out-Chevalier Chevalier on "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes," a love song to a girl in a gorilla suit that may be this Cabaret's high point. Cassie Thompson, a stunner as Audrey in Harrell Theatre's recent production of Little Shop of Horrors, is used just as poorly. As the English performer Sally Bowles, she never works up any chemistry with Stephen Garrett's honestly rendered Clifford, the ex-pat American writer chasing his novel across Europe.

Even Guy Lee Bailey, Theatre Memphis' generally excellent associate costume designer, is off his game here.

There are moments when shadows fall across the stage and the show's "beautiful" orchestra moves from folksy oom-pah to flatulent German jazz and everything seems as woozy and sinister as it should be. But this is an awkward, sexually stunted Cabaret. Only Barry Fuller as the doomed Herr Schultz and Jeanna Juleson as his lost love hit the right notes, becoming the show's most prominent and memorable personalities.

Director Mitzi Hamilton doesn't always hit a home run, but she usually does. That's what makes this not-ready-for-opening-night Cabaret so surprising.

Through April 3rd

I'm not usually one for hyperbole, but August: Osage County is one of the best plays you are likely to see anytime soon, and Playhouse on the Square has done a fantastic job of bringing Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize winner to life. Yes, it's true, the show runs more than three hours with two intermissions. Worth it.

Set in Oklahoma during a blazing hot summer just before and after the drowning suicide of the Weston family patriarch, Letts' drama plays out like a middle-class echo of one of Sam Shepard's savage family dramas with a pinch of King Lear. Even the severely altered speech of Violet, the play's bitter, drug-addicted widow, seems to have been borrowed from the brain-damaged victim of domestic violence in Shepard's equally hefty A Lie of the Mind. But Letts' breezy dialogue and his ability to find screwball humor and unforced slapstick in dark, decidedly realistic events makes him an exciting new voice working in a tradition defined by playwrights like Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.

Irene Crist gives her best performance yet as the pill-popping Violet, fighting to speak simple words one minute and cutting people in half with her tongue the next. She's joined by a stellar cast including Kim Justis Eikner, Dave Landis, Ann Marie Hall, Sam Weakley, Michael Gravois, Jim Palmer, Laura Stracko, Ed Porter, Leah Bray Nichols, Carla Olivar, and Michael Detroit, with a breakout performance by Olivia Wingate, a sophomore at Hutchison.

August: Osage County has a bit of everything for everybody: marital infidelity, incest, child molestation, Eric Clapton records, fibs, lies, falsehoods, etc. But in spite of the unsavory ingredients, this dish comes together like apple pie — crusty, sweet at the center, and full of spice.

Weakley and Palmer compete for best cameo of the season as the town sheriff and the elder Weston. Gravois is uncharacteristically icky as a shady businessman with an eye for little girls. Eikner, Stracko, and Nichols are hilarious and heartbreaking as sisters linked by nothing but genetics and the shared memories of a screwed-up childhood.

Director Rob Satterlee has built a show so casually real and strangely inviting the audience feels like intimate guests at Oklahoma's most awkward dinner party. Do not miss.

Through April 3rd

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