A chorus line in "Cabaret." ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

‘Cabaret’ is entertaining, provocative

The great news is that, against a stiff headwind this past weekend, the Barn Arts Collective was able to launch its amazing production of the Kander and Ebb Broadway musical “Cabaret.”

The not so great news is that this troubling story, set in 1931 Berlin at a critical point in Hitler’s rise to power, is unsettlingly relevant today.

The show almost had to be canceled. On Aug. 7, the town issued a stop work order for the advertised venue – Chummy Rich’s old boat shop. The group had been operating there for years but had neglected to secure the necessary permits or make mandatory safety code improvements despite repeated warnings.

On Tuesday, the group’s application for Planning Board approval, which can take several months, was deemed incomplete. When it became apparent to Barn Arts directors Andrew Simon and Brittany Parker that they were not going to be able to resolve the issue by Friday’s planned opening night, they contemplated postponing or even canceling the show.

But in a true Hollywood happy-ending style, they discovered the Tremont Community Center, which allows residents to host events there, was free for that weekend and the next. After a frantic flurry of meetings and phone calls, they secured the dates. [Update: Labor Day weekend performances will not take place at the Tremont Community Center, but at Camp Beech Cliff instead.]

Could they move the set, stage, lighting, musical instruments, props, costumes – well, the whole kit and caboodle for a full-length Broadway musical production – and reassemble it all a mile down the road in just a couple of days? The answer is a resounding “yes.”

Was the performance they managed to snatch from disaster worth all the trouble? Darn right, it was.

Those who came were well rewarded with a show that was entertaining, provocative and, despite the obstacles it had to clear, thoroughly and professionally polished.

The setting for “Cabaret” is the seedy Kit Kat Klub, where luscious girls and pretty boys strut and grind for its lascivious audience. At center stage is the Klub’s Emcee (Andrew Lynch) and its beautiful star performer Sally Bowles (Brittany Parker.)

Both Parker and Lynch have taken a different direction with these roles than their most famous predecessors Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. For the most part, it works.

Parker is a delicate, almost fragile beauty, a physical presence not well suited to bawdiness, so she wisely doesn’t go too far in that direction. While the excellent choreography and costuming gives Sally plenty of sex appeal, we see that she is posturing and pretending. Beneath all that bump and grind and sass is a confused and frightened girl, trapped, and ultimately doomed, by the stage persona she has created. While her naughty songs and dances are great fun, her final, angry, desperate solo is heart-wrenching.

As Emcee, Lynch is admirably sleazy. But a signature aspect of the role – his androgyny – is missing from Lynch’s straight-ish portrayal and look. While it’s a valid interpretation, to reference another Kander and Ebb show, “Chicago,” it lacks a bit of that ol’ razzle dazzle.

Andrew Simon has taken on the sweeter, gentler role of Herr Schultz in the play’s poignant inner romance story between a Jew and his gentile landlady Fraulein Schneider (Katie Melby).

Simon is a powerful stage presence even in this understated role. A less dynamic actor than Melby would have been overshadowed by him, but Melby holds her own. In this show, she completely transforms herself from a leggy Marlene Dietrich-ish showgirl to a shy spinster with the most subtle and effective body language.

Speaking of gobsmacked suitors, Dexter McKinney – who plays Cliff, the naïve but principled American writer who is seduced in turn by Sally, by mysterious smuggler Ernst (Alex Bender) and by the city of Berlin itself – does a fine job with a difficult role. Cliff is the comparatively unremarkable center about which all the sparkle, fizz and kerfuffle revolve.

Bender, as the enigmatic Ernst, makes his presence known in the excellent pit orchestra, where several of the actors do double duty. It is Bender’s remarkable trumpet playing in the opening number that heralds a helluva good ride. Bender, it turns out, was brought here straight from a leading role in the Broadway musical “Bandstand” by its assistant director Lindsay Hope Pearlman. Me’lissa Smith designed the fabulous choreography. Smith, by the way, in an outstanding chorus of beautiful women, stands out in the hilariously horrible gorilla dance.

The show’s set designer, Ingrid Larson, has made clever use of vintage photographic projections of city streets, as well as nightclub and apartment interiors, to take us to prewar Berlin. Lighting designer Kate McGee has transformed a middle school gym into a demimonde night club.

This show, which will be performed this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7 p.m. at Camp Beech Cliff, is a must-see on many levels.

Admission is by donation. Tickets can be reserved by visiting www.barnartscollective.com.

Updated Aug. 30 at 1:30 p.m.


Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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