Sam Given as EMCEE leads the CABARET cast in the song "Money" in the Ivoryton Playhouse smashing production of the musical. (Photo: Jonathan Steele)

Andy Tighe as Cliff and Katie Mack as Sally ponder their future in the thrilling CABARET at Ivoryton Playhouse. (Photo: Jonathan Steele)

Sally Bowles (Katy Mack) and Cliff Bradshaw (Andy Tighe) begin a relationship in CABARET. (Photo: Jonathan Steele for Ivoryton Playhouse)

"Two Ladies"..one a male...surround EMCEE Sam Given in CABARET at Ivoryton Playhouse CT. (Photo: Jonathan Steele)

Soon to be "Married" are Herr Schultz (John Little) and Fraulein Schneider (Carolyn Popp) in CABARET at Ivoryton Playhouse . (Photo: Jonathan Steele)

Powerful, Must-See CABARET Thrills At Ivoryton Playhouse CT

Photo by Jonathan Steele.
Sam Given as EMCEE sings "Two Ladies" with a CABARET boy and girl in the Ivoryton Playhouse production.

Powerful, Must-See CABARET Thrills At Ivoryton Playhouse CT

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

The stage is set at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut. It’s been transformed into a seedy nightclub, the Kit Kat Klub in 1931 Berlin. Nazis and fascists are coming to power. A mad emcee entices us to come inside to a place where “life is beautiful” although outside the horrors that will be inflicted on the world are just beginning. This is the fascinating milieu of CABARET, a dark but brilliant musical with a book by Joe Masteroff– now playing in idyllic Ivoryton until September 1.

When this John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) show opened on Broadway in 1966 it won 8 Tony Awards, with its revival in 1998 winning 4 more. (This current production is based on the 1998 update).

Actor Sam Given* was born to play the role of the Emcee. His character is mad, loveable, evil, outrageous, over-the-top and totally deranged as he introduces the whirlwind life into which we are about to be taken on an emotionally thrilling and chilling ride.  As he grins insanely welcoming us to the Cabaret (“Willkommen”), the Emcee is joined by the scantily clad Kit Kat Girls and Boys. The opening number is sensational. As directed and choreographed by Associate Artistic Director Todd Underwood, the club scene in decadent Berlin comes to life with fluid sexuality and electric energy. Led by Sam Given’s Emcee throughout, the club’s mood sinks deeper and deeper into depravity with every rapid dazzling costume change. Given is not only a dynamic song and dance headliner but is also an accomplished actor with a range from A to Z plus. Todd Underwood again delivers another top Broadway-quality production for the Ivoryton Playhouse.

The story unfolds as mild-mannered American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Andy Tighe*), newly arrived in Berlin, meets English cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Katie Mack*) in a rooming house run by Fraulein Schneider (Carolyn Popp*). Their tempestuous relationship is played out with Cliff being entranced by the fiery, hard-drinking, drug-taking Bowles. Ms. Mack creates Sally as an emotional firecracker with either defiance or heartbreak in every song that she sings. She brings a new longing to her interpretation of the torch song “Maybe This Time,” and in the second act is realistically distraught as she entices us with her powerful voice to come to the “Cabaret.”  She personifies the true meaning of star quality.

Fraulein Schneider runs her establishment with a firm hand, even though many of her tenants have shady enterprises going on right under her nose. Ms. Popp’s lovely voice is given a spotlight when she sings “So What” – the resignation that for a woman of a certain age, life goes on no matter what discomfort comes her way. Later, with delightful John Little* as Herr Schultz, a December-December budding romance is unfolding as they duet lovingly in “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married.”

Carlyn Connolly* as Fraulein Kost, a prostitute who rents a room in Schneider’s house, gives a wonderfully bold performance – especially when she sings “Married” in German as counterpoint to the old couple’s melodic song.  Will Clark is charming smuggler Ernst, who befriends Cliff and later turns that charm into sinister horror as he leads the entire cast in the monstrous Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” which frighteningly closes the first act.

The brilliant cast of singer/dancer/actors light up the stage as Kit Kat Klub performers. This ensemble – Corrie Farbstein, Taavon Gamble* (who doubles as dance captain), Jade Genga, Aliah James, Amanda Luppachino, Amani Pope, Renee Sutherland, Emerson Valentina, Max Weinstein and Jayke Workman- are a superb example of a group of professionals who appear as if they’ve been working together for years, even though they’ve only had 2.5 weeks of rehearsal! Every movement is executed beautifully, every note clear and to perfection.

Costume Designer Katie Bunce dresses each Kit Kat dancer in a tawdry sensual way that illustrates the openness and abandon that was the scene in Berlin in the early ‘30’s. Sam Given’s Emcee costumes become more and more fabulous in each scene- from male clown to outrageous drag and every mad style the decadent Emcee would be expected to wear.

The incredibly versatile set is the brainchild of Scenic Designer/Associate Artistic Director Daniel Nischan, who has “opened up” the stage to create the illusion of not only the nightclub, but also allows the audience to imagine the rooming house, train car and other locations with the minimum of furnishings and props-quickly moved from scene to scene by the cast, under the trained eye of Stage Manager Laura Lynne Knowles* assisted by Emily Lafreniere*.

Sound Designer Ray Smith has upped the game at Ivoryton by giving this production good, clear, crisp sound. This is especially evident via Musical Director Michael Morris’s incredibly jazzy band. The 8 musicians all deserve their own standing ovation, and drummer Elliot Wallace gets an extra bow for his standout thunderous rhythmic beats. There’s also a lovely violin solo which is uncredited in the program, but it’s another winning musical moment.

Marcus Abbott’s lighting brightens up the Kit Kat Klub, and while there are moments when spot cues are sometimes missed, the overall appearance of the show is bright and fun – even though the theme is dark and frightening. The evils of fascism, nationalism and politically motivated prejudice can sneak up on you, the story emphasizes – especially when you’re having fun and blithely going through mundane daily routines.

Playhouse Artistic Director Jacqui Hubbard says about CABARET : "It's such an important piece of theatre, in what it says about the world and how quickly things can change. I think it is even more relevant today than when it was first performed over 50 years ago. Underneath the humor, the sex and the fabulous music is a constant alarm sounding, telling us to pay attention.”

This production of CABARET makes us pay attention. It’s a must-see experience reflecting what’s going on in our country today. The final scene is chilling. And the curtain call is an inspired example of theatricality. It’s hard to remember another time in the theater when the audience gave a standing ovation to such an incredible cast, while holding back the cheers and whistles to give quiet respect to those people who were murdered during Germany’s darkest days.

Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Additional matinee performances are on Saturday, August 17th and August 31st at 2pm. Tickets at the box office 860-767-7318.

The Ivoryton Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton, Connecticut. * Denotes member of Actors Equity Association.