There was certainly much to celebrate on the evening of Thursday, March 12, when Bristol Riverside Theatre welcomed patrons for the opening night of Cabaret – the final directorial project of BRT staple Keith Baker.
Still, there was a clear sense of underlying nerves as the coronavirus, or COVID-19, began to sink its claws into American society. Ticket handlers wore gloves, pre-show murmurs discussed the closure of Disney World, and a handful of theater-goers came equipped with Lysol wipes. Founding director Susan D. Atkinson also announced there would be no post-show reception.
While Cabaret is currently postponed until further notice, those lucky enough to attend the production not only received three hours of pure entertainment, but a much-needed escape from the world outside – just like the characters seeking solace inside the Kit Kat Club in early 1930s Germany.
Within seconds, the audience is launched headfirst into the somewhat raunchy world of the cabaret club, all thanks to Robb Sapp (Broadway’s Wicked and Shrek), who portrays the Emcee. Hands down, Sapp is the star of the show, boasting a mysteriously creepy yet hilariously over-the-top personality.
Sapp flawlessly transitions from circus-esque ring leader to flamboyant drag queen, making surprise appearances throughout Cabaret. Audience members will find themselves smiling from ear-to-ear and laughing out loud during each one.
As the Emcee, Sapp explains how, despite the rise of Nazi Germany, fears are forgotten inside the Kit Kat Club.
“Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome,” he announces. “In here, life is beautiful.”
And it certainly is, with its group of “Kit Kat Girls,” “Kit Kat Boys” and main act, the incomparable Sally Bowles, played by Lauren Molina (Broadway’s Sweeney Todd). On stage, Bowles is poised and powerful. But off-stage, the artist is all over the place, getting impregnated by random men and blowing her performance earnings on lavish clothing.
Molina does a standup job at taking on the role, made famous by Liza Minnelli in the 1972 film. She shifts from a hyper young girl with childish wonder and excitement to a professional musician, forcing the arms of theater-goers to break out in goosebumps during “Maybe This Time.”
The love interest of Bowles is Cliff, played by Sean Thompson (a Northeast Philadelphia native who appeared in BRT’s Rumors), a newly arrived writer in Germany. Molina and Thompson play off of each other well as they attempt to navigate romance and the real world, simultaneously.
According to Baker, he purposefully created BRT’s version of Cabaret to be “rough” and “raw.” During the show, video footage of the nightmare happening outside the club is projected on the walls, forcing the audience to momentarily leave the coziness of Kit Kat behind.
At times, the production is downright chilling, specifically during a scene featuring the Emcee and a record player. With only a spotlight on him, the eerie voice of a child sings “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” an unsettling yet ear worm-inducing Nazi anthem.
Overall, BRT’s take on Cabaret is extremely well-done, and is a perfect balance between a feel-good musical and examination of social apathy that is still relevant today.
“I have wanted to share the brilliance of Cabaret with our audiences for a long time,” said Baker. “Cabaret is a true cautionary take about casual indifference that could happen anywhere, at any time, no matter what side of the aisle you find yourself on. Cabaret is just as relevant today as it was when it debuted in the 1960s. The events that truly shape our lives happen slowly, incrementally and often without awareness. This story is a timely examination of darker forces at work in Germany in the 1930s.”
The coronavirus situation continues to evolve on an hourly basis. Some of this information may have changed. Please check with the theater for updates.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org