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Stratford Festival Review: Terrific Cabaret in both senses of the word

CabaretBook by Joe MasteroffBased on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher IsherwoodMusic by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred EbbDirected by Amanda DenhertFeaturing Bruce Dow, Trish Lindström, Sean Arbuckle, Nora McClellan and Frank MooreThe story: Struggling American novelist Cliff Bradshaw arrives in Berlin, New Year's Eve, 1929. It's a time of hedonistic attitudes, fully embraced by the members of the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret where Cliff meets English chanteuse Sally Bowles, and where the enigmatic Emcee holds court. Cliff and Sally have a great time partying while their landlady Fräulein Schneider grows close to her friend Herr Shultz. However the creeping presence of the Nazi party gradually makes itself felt, putting all their lives – and their way of life – in danger. Robyn GodfreyFOR THE GAZETTEFrom the very first glimpse of the set you realize this is not your grandmother's musical. Broken windows, crumbling stone, rusted iron stairs – the set designed by Douglas Paraschuk looks like a tetanus infection waiting to happen. Yet the characters that live in this seedy world do so – for a while – to the fullest, grabbing at love and life where they can. No wonder Cliff becomes seduced by this life.The audience can share his enthusiasm – director Amanda Dehnert brings to life a production that is tantalizing, comical, seductive, horrific and sad – all in a good way. It has two hearts, Bruce Dow as the Emcee and Sean Arbuckle as Cliff Bradshaw. The Emcee and his company lure Cliff into their world, and watch as his own story unfolds. As Cliff becomes aware of the political situation in Germany, he also becomes aware of the watchful Emcee, and this development is fascinating to view from the floor.But the audience is not protected behind the fourth wall for this show. An actor swings out over the front rows, Kit Kat dancers appear in the aisles, the Emcee speaks directly to us and when Nazi sympathizers suddenly rise out of the audience to join in a grotesque parody of the formerly sweet ballad "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" in their loud, harsh voices, we become as trapped and helpless as the characters on stage. It is a heart-thumping moment: only Cliff acts to kill the lights with a sharp clang, plunging all of us into darkness and stunned silence. The performances are as dazzling as the direction. Known for his jollier roles, Bruce Dow evolves his version of the Emcee from a cheekily sinister imp into a sort of chorus, and then into a sort of muse, intent on drawing Cliff nearer to fulfilling both their needs, to remember and write about the life of the Cabaret. Sean Arbuckle paints Cliff as a perceptive and realistic optimist, and is and movingly expressive when he sings "Don't Go". Trish Lindström brings the appropriate joie de vivre to the appealingly selfish Sally Bowles, and shows a hard, glittering defiance in the title number as she makes her self-destructive choice. Nora McClellan and Frank Moore are unforgettable as they bring wistful tenderness to their roles as the pragmatic Fräulein Schneider and the Jewish Herr Shultz who refuses to comprehend the growing danger that the Nazis represent. With its gritty costumes and memorable music, this production of Cabaret is terrific in both senses of the word it evokes the terror of the era but superbly so. Every second is nail-bitingly tense or sad and there isn't a single moment when you can really relax. Parents considering bringing their children or teens should be prepared to answer questions afterward – the play contains themes important to our collective history and memory, but they are explored a very dark and sometimes explicit manner. Cabaret continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until Oct. 25. (Robyn Godfrey is a librarian by day at the Stratford Public Library and an active member of the Friends of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Her reviews can also be found on the web at reviewsbyrobyn.blogspot.com.)

 PHOTO: From left, Paul Nolan as Bobby, Bruce Dow and the Emcee and Deidrea Halley as Alicia Graff in Cabaret at the Avon Theatre. (David Hou for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival) 

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