Zoetic’s Cabaret a game changer

Lindsey Corey in Zoetic Stage’s Cabaret. Photo by Justin Namon


By Oline Cogdill

When the John Kander/Fred Ebb musical Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966, it was a gamechanger in its staging, tone and story. Certainly, other musicals tackled politics in specific eras—such as Sound of Music (1959) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964). But none targeted the rise of Nazism in Berlin during 1929 and 1930 using a low-rent nightclub as a metaphor for apathy.

Lindsey Corey, Teddy Warren in Zoetic Stage’s Cabaret. Photo by Justin Namon

Director Sam Mendes’ 1993 London revival of Cabaret further upped the ante, zeroing in on the seediness of the Kit Kat Klub, Nazism seeping through Germany and a blatantly sexualized The Emcee, dressed in fishnet stockings and torn mesh top, not the tuxedo that Joel Grey wore in the original.

Zoetic Stage’s production of Cabaret  is another game changer with its innovative direction and staging by Stuart Meltzer, a superb cast and inventive set. Cabaret runs through April 7 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.

Zoetic co-founder Meltzer takes this now popular musical, listed in the top 10 most produced titles in American theater, to make it totally his own production. Meltzer reconceives aspects introduced in the Mendes version to make Zoetic’s Cabaret seem like a fresh, new musical.

Elijah Word, Lindsey Corey and the cast of Zoetic Stage’s Cabaret. Photo by Justin Namon

Meltzer’s attention to details makes many scenes powerful and unpredictable. The first time we hear the Nazi refrain “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” expertly sung by Nate Promkul, is a chilling surprise. Meltzer’s unique spin on the last scene becomes one of those heart-in-the-throat moments in which the audience’s gasp is universal.

Avi Hoffman, Laura Turnbull in Zoetic Stage’s Cabaret. Photo by Justin Namon

Instead of the traditional proscenium stage, Zoetic’s is a variation of theater-in-the-round, cleverly designed by Zoetic co-founder Michael McKeever. At one end is the dancers’ cluttered dressing room that leads to a runway of sorts. That leads to a circle stage, followed by another runway leading to a rectangle stage with the words Kit Kat Klub in bold gold letters, behind which is the band. Some audience members sit in either long tables up against the staging or in individual tables, or in regular theater seats behind the tables. As a result, the audience feels as if they are smack in the action.

As audience members enter, a dancer already is slumped over a dressing table — perhaps exhausted, or drunk, or perhaps its Elsie who will be mentioned later in the song “Cabaret.” We won’t spoil the surprise.

Robert Koutras, Teddy Warren in Zoetic Stage’s Cabaret. Photo by Justin Namon

Cabaret opens just before the new year of 1930 in Berlin. The Jazz Age is winding down while the burgeoning Nazi Party is gaining strength. The seedy Kit Kat Klub isn’t the place to be but it offers a refuge for those living on the fringe, basking in its decadence. Its patrons and dancers refuse to acknowledge the violence, antisemitism and hatred growing outside its walls. “Here, everything is beautiful,” is the common refrain. Only it isn’t.

American Clifford Bradshaw arrives in Berlin to work on a novel, teaching English on the side for an income. On the train, he meets German Ernst Ludwig, who agrees to become his first pupil, recommends a boarding house and offers him an occasional job taking items back and forth to France for “a good political cause.”  Ernst also introduces Cliff to the Kit Kat Klub where he meets the English chanteuse, Sally Bowles. Cliff also is recognized by one of the male dancers with whom he had a liaison in another country. A few days later, Sally shows up at the boarding house insisting she move in with Cliff after she is fired.

Lindsey Corey and the cast of Zoetic Stage’s Cabaret. Photo by Justin Namon

At the boarding house, proprietress Fräulein Schneider and her Jewish tenant, Herr Schultz, who owns a fruit store, begin a serious romance with plans to marry. Their courtship is lovely, and heart-breaking.

Cabaret is essentially four stories—that of Cliff and Sally and their growing relationship, that of the nightclub, the goings on at the boarding house and the rapid influence of the Nazis in Berlin.

Meltzer’s skill at casting superior actors and pushing them to even higher performances excels in Cabaret.

Lindsey Corey and the cast of Zoetic Stage’s Cabaret. Photo by Justin Namon

Lindsey Corey, one of South Florida’s top singer-actors, digs even deeper as Sally Bowles. While Sally is, essentially a third-rate entertainer, there is no denying that Corey gives a first-rate performance. Her “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time” are show-stoppers. But her savvy interpretation of the song “Cabaret” is excellent. Too many singers approach this song as a happy, party tune, but it is not and Corey understands this. Corey finds the pathos, the sadness, the idea that Berlin is changing for the worse and she can no longer ignore politics. Corey’s rendition is one of the best we’ve ever heard.

Teddy Warren’s Cliff arrives in Berlin thinking he is worldly wise but soon learns how little he knows. Suffering from writer’s block, he is seduced by the decadence of Berlin and by Sally. Cliff, at first, is in awe of Berlin — “it’s tawdry and terrible. And I love it,” he says. His realization that his errands for Ernst are for the Nazis forces him to reevaluate his life. Warren, recently seen in GableStage’s Old Wicked Songs, effectively shows his character’s growth.

Elijah Word, Lindsey Corey and the cast of Zoetic Stage’s Cabaret. Photo by Justin Namon

The Emcee is Cabaret’s showiest role and the excellent Elijah Word makes every song, every movement, even a piercing glance count in this sexually charged character who moves along the story of the club and performs with the dancers.

Word’s role in Slow Burn’s Kinky Boots established him as a powerful entertainer, but his Emcee shows his talent at another level.

Word is mesmerizing when on stage, from “Willkommen,” to “Two Ladies” to “Money.” The Emcee is dressed, not just in the torn mesh top and corset established in Mendes’ production, but mostly in rather sophisticated, but oh so sexy costumes winningly designed by Dawn Shamburger.  The Emcee arrives as if in a fashion show wearing fishnet stockings, a garter belt and a corset, of course, but also an open-front skirt with pannier under structure, a vest, jacket and top hat, later in a birdcage-like miniskirt, with each subsequent outfit further establishing his character.

As Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, long-time married actors Laura Turnbull and Avi Hoffman bring an undeniable chemistry to their heartfelt performances, especially in their duets “Married” and “It Couldn’t Please Me More.” Turnbull’s “What Would You Do?” is a forceful look at the cost of surviving.

Lindsey Corey in Zoetic Stage’s Cabaret. Photo by Justin Namon

Sara Grant is a revelation in her dual roles as the dancer Frenchie and Fräulein Kost, a prostitute who lives at the boarding house. Kost often is a minor character, meant to cause friction to Fräulein Schneider. But Grant makes Kost three-dimensional, especially as she gradually reveals her Nazi sympathies and virulent antisemitism. Grant has proved herself in a variety of roles in South Florida, but Cabaret shows her talents at a new high.

Robert Koutras begins his Ernst Ludwig as an affable stranger, easy to start a friendship with. Koutras makes Ernst still seem like a nice guy even when his conman tendencies are revealed. But his black heart comes clear when he first wears a swastika and his version of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” that closes the first act is biting descent into hatred.

Kudos also are deserving to Ben Sandomir as various characters and Casey Sacco, Conor Walton, Lauren Danielle Horgan and Nate Promkul who invest individuality in their roles as Kit Kat dancers. The band, led by Eric Alsford, is a highlight.

Quiana Major’s sound design and Becky Montero’s lighting design enhance the production.

At its essence, Cabaret is a musical about denial. Sally and the Kit Kat Klub’s dancers refuse to believe that politics will affect their lives. Cliff acknowledges the influence of Nazism but declines to act until almost too late. Fräulein Schneider forgoes happiness and love for safety. And, saddest of all, Herr Schultz refuses to believe that his supposed friends and neighbors would turn against him because he’s Jewish.

Zoetic Stage’s Cabaret is not to be missed.

Cabaret presented by Zoetic Stage, runs through April 7 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday; 2:30 p.m. April 6. Running time approximately 2 hours, 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets $65-$85. Call 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org


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