Eclipse presents exceptional ‘Cabaret’

By Wendy Carson

When most people think of the musical, “Cabaret,” they consider Sally Bowles to be the main character. However, this is really the story of the writer, Clifford Bradshaw, and his quest to write a novel. It is, after all, based on semi-autobiographical stories by an actual writer living in 1930s Berlin.  

Yet, as crafted by Joe Masteroff (with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb), it is actually the Emcee who is the storyteller and master manipulator of the entire plot. We see him pulling the strings, putting all of the pieces into play, joyously watching the outcomes, and savagely commenting on it all through song. This has never been so utterly clear as it is in Eclipse’s current production.

From the first second he takes the stage, Matthew Conwell’s presence as our host enthralls. We can’t help but obey his every command. Fortunately for the rest of the cast, he directs us all to pay attention to the other performers who are equally outstanding.

The Kit Kat Girls: Rosie (Reagan Cole Minnette), Lulu (Peyton Wright), Frenchie (Cora Lucas), Texas (Julia Murphy), Fritzie (Lizzie Mowry), and Helga (Emily Lynn Thomas), are all at the top of their game. Their dexterity, balance, and skill bringing life to Alexandria Van Paris’s choreography (which in some cases would make even Fosse impressed) shows that they are all destined for promising stage careers if they choose to pursue them. They also bring a hint of joy to the jaded seediness of their roles.

The Kit Kat Boys, Bobby (Isaiah Hastings) and Victor (Jet Terry) are both athletic and charismatic to the point of making you sad that the script doesn’t offer them more stage time.

Cynthia Kauffman gives Sally Bowles a happier outlook. She keeps her character intentionally ignorant to anything around her that is not currently making her happy and promoting her career.

Donathan Arnold’s turn as Clifford Bradshaw makes the character as All-American as apple pie, while reminding us that apples can be tart, rotten, sweet and that all recipes have secret ingredients within them. Being an African American makes casting sense, as in the era Black ex-pats often found Europe more welcoming than back home. And he does seem to enjoy Germany – until he doesn’t.

Judy Fitzgerald and Charles Goad truly break your heart as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, a couple so hopelessly in love but still wary of the dangers arising around them.

Mowry’s delightful turn as the dedicated “lover” of sailors, Fraulein Kost, helps bring some much-needed humor into much of the storyline outside of The Kit Kat Club. But her true loyalties are no laughing matter.

Scott Van Wye pours on the charm as the mysterious Ernst Ludwig. We almost don’t mind the true nature of his “work,” until it’s literally on his sleeve.

Eclipse is a program of Summer Stock Stage that gives the alumni of the youth program a chance to be part of a professional production. They not only learn from experienced director Carlos Medina Maldonado but also by working alongside Equity actors Fitzgerald (co-founder of Actors Theatre of Indiana) and Goad.

While I do admit that this musical is one of my all-time favorites, this production makes me feel like I have never actually seen it before. If I could, I would gladly watch every performance.

You can see it Thursday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, Indianapolis. Find info and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

ALT: ‘Admission’ of difficult truths

By John Lyle Belden

You can tell the play is going to be problematic when you have five white actors talking about race. And if this bugs your liberal sensibilities, buckle in for the ride that is “Admissions,” the drama by Joshua Harmon presented by American Lives Theatre.

Sherri (Bridget Haight) is the head of Admissions at a posh New England prep school. Her mission, over the years since she took the job, has been to increase the diversity of the student body, which was overwhelmingly white even by New Hampshire standards. And she is SO close to her goal of 20 percent People of Color! Her near-retirement assistant, Roberta (Suzanne Fleenor) isn’t making it easy, though, as the photos in the new recruiting catalog are nearly all populated by White people.

But what of the basketball picture, Roberta pleads, frustrated at the countless hours already put in on the book. Next to Sherri’s son Charlie, there’s his half-Black best friend. But Perry doesn’t present as Black in photographs, Sherri replies.

Roberta pleads for clarity on her literally black and white mission, growing tense as Sherri – ever woke – continues to give instructions in euphemisms. Finally, our license-to-be-blunt-because-she’s-old says “more dark-skinned people, got it” and goes on her way.

But this play is about more than an obscure publication being sent to scholarship families in the Bronx. We find later from Perry’s mom, Ginnie (Valerie Nowosielski), that the young man has been accepted to Yale University. Charlie (Matthew Conwell), who also applied to Yale – his dream school, and as his parents insist only an Ivy League school will give him success – did not gain acceptance.

When Charlie finally gathers his wits enough to come home that evening, he is still very, very, very, very, very not good with this. Having already entered his senior year passed over for editor of the school paper for a less-capable girl, this situation has brought him to a breaking point. So, he vents in a paint-peeling rant to his mother and father, Bill (Larry Sommers), the prep school’s headmaster. After the boy storms off to his room, Bill – the kind of middle-aged man who believes he’s scrubbed every bit of racism and privilege from his soul – utters, “that’s it; we’ve raised a Republican.”

But the bitter joke is on Bill and Sherri when Charlie finally sorts through all the contradictions of his life and takes action on his own. Suddenly, a few photos in a magazine are the least of their problems.

Director Chris Saunders and the cast pull no (metaphorical) punches, as Harmon’s drama reveals that “admission” has more than one definition – and both are difficult. This hard look at liberal hypocrisy could raise concerns that conservatives may view it with, “See, I told you so!” However, I don’t see a lot of folks on that side of the spectrum wanting to attend – and what of when their critiques have a valid point? We can’t work our way out of complex situations with the same simple thinking that got us into them.

The strong performances make this worth the challenge to view; and as you wonder if the characters learned anything by the end of the play, consider: did you?

Remaining dates are Jan. 20-30 at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair in downtown Indianapolis. Get info at americanlivestheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org.