Lake Country Players present : Cabaret!!

photo courtesy of Kimberly Laberge

Life is a cabaret, old chum. A quote that anyone with an interest in theater or has seen the movie version of Cabaret or heard the Lisa Minnelli recording is certainly aware of and may have actually sung or hummed the tune when you read the title for this blog post. Director Kimberly Laberge paraphrased it in her bio in the program as Enjoy the Cabaret, ole chum…and the production of Cabaret that she has unleashed at the Lake Country Playhouse invited us to enjoy it at every turn. And we did!

This was my first visit to Lake Country Playhouse, a little jewel of a theater housed in a former Masonic Temple in downtown Hartland WI. At my estimate of 100 seats, it is a pleasantly intimate space where everyone in the audience will feel like they are front row! Although this is great for the audience, given the size of the cast of Cabaret and the often energetic and boisterous activities of the cabaret, it is a challenge for a director and choreographer to wrestle. Particularly with a rather shallow stage, front to back, and I don’t imagine a lot of room in the wings. So bravo to Kimberly Laberge, choreographer Jackay Boelkow, stage manager Trinity Sullivan, and set constructor Adam Harrison for mastering this space and bringing Cabaret to life!

photo courtesy of Kimberly Laberge

But here we are, in the Cabaret, the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy little dive with peeling wallpaper and a ‘proscenium’ arch with out any facade…just the structural two by fours. With just enough space behind the proscenium to accommodate the house combo, a patient lot of musicians who were in place well before the action begins and while the patrons were being seated. And they were the wholly appropriate accompaniment for the singers and dancers to come, thanks for music director Ashley Sprangers. This minimal set is incredibly suited for the content of the play and makes the majority of the stage available for the actors and the action. Again, props to Trinity Sullivan, set designer.

photo courtesy of Kimberly Laberge

And on to the cabaret. One of the key issues with any play is casting…and given the era of Weimar Germany and the denizens of the Kit Kat Klub, casting Cabaret has to be a unique challenge. But here Laberge found an amazing and diverse ensemble to present us with a Cabaret we can all identify with and enjoy!

One of the stand outs here is Viktoria Feely as Emcee. Having grown up in a world of Joel Grey, I felt that this is an amazing casting choice, going against expectations but exceeding in delivery. Feely has all of the requisite moves and is just amazing as she transforms from the brash and impertinent Emcee of the early acts to the sad and broken character we see as the play comes to an end. She gives us the complete spectrum that the role inspires and cleanly exhibits the underlying emotions that the play itself explores. And you knew she was giving her all throughout the play…in every single scene she was in…and that was a great bit of the play. I hope that we see Feely in other productions in the near future.

photo courtesy of Kimberly Laberge

And one of the other real treats here, is Maggie Wirth as Fraulein Schneider. An older woman renting rooms to make her living. She can be direct when conducting business, harsh with an unruly tenant, but easily swayed by an honest face. Her love story with Herr Schultz is touching and apparent in Wirth’s manner and the attentions she pays to Schultz. And her delight in the fresh fruits that he brings to her from his shop go beyond the pleasure of some fresh fruit. And Wirth brings it to the songs that are her’s and her’s alone. She really brought Fraulein Schneider out as a major character and a delight to watch.

And of course, you can’t have a successful Cabaret, without a Sally Bowles! And Laker Thrasher brings us the saucy, provocative, sexy, and sometimes questioning Sally. And of course their interaction with Clifford Bradshaw is a key element of the other love story in the play, and Thrasher plays it true. And yes, they are in exquisite voice, every bit the chanteuse!

photo courtesy of Kimberly Laberge

And don’t let me forget the men here. Ezekiel N. Drews as Clifford Bradshaw, the American novelist, convinced us he was the soft hearted and maybe a bit naive American somewhat lost in a Europe he didn’t quite understand and lost in his own desires that he also didn’t quite understand. Kyle Kramer gave us the tender and thoughtful Herr Schultz . He clearly showed us the feelings that Herr Schultz had for Fraulein Schneider, even before she was quite aware of them.

One other player that I want to mention is Shana Quandt as Fraulein Fritzie Kost. Besides her outstanding work as part of the dance chorus at the Klub, her verbal sparring with Fraulein Schneider about the visitors to her room were a welcome bit of humor against some of the more sober topics presented in Cabaret.

photo courtesy of Kimberly Laberge

And how do you costume sixteen characters in period pieces…several costumes per actor actually…and keep them original…and unique…and keep up with costume changes. I don’t know but oh my goodness, but costume designer Cas Mayhall certainly does. If you take a few moments and look at the photos, you’ll see exactly what I mean. Aren’t they just simply amazing? The costuming here certainly helped deliver the story just as well as the actors.

Now, this entire cast has to be one of the hardest working stage crews around. As the scene shifts from club to rooming house to train station and back, as actors move on and off the stage, they take the couches, tables, benches, and seats with them…and then back again…during brief between scene blackouts. Again kudos to Laberge, Boelkow, Sullivan, and cast for making this all work.

I missed opening weekend so if you plan on attending there is only one weekend left. And it was a full house at the Sunday matinee that I attended. Click here for performance and ticket information!

Milwaukee Rep’s World Premier of ‘Wife Of A Salesman’

Picture if you will, a world where Willie Loman’s wife knocks on the apartment door of Willie Loman’s mistress. Much of what you picture will occur in this Milwaukee Repertory Theater World Premier presentation of the Eleanor Burgess play, Wife of a Salesman. But you mustn’t take that at face value because many other things beyond your initial suppositions are about to occur as well.

Heidi Armbruster (left) and Bryce Gangel. Photographer: Jenn Udoni and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

Since this is a world premier, I am going to try to avoid being a spoiler on the unique twists and turns presented by the Burgess text. When this gets to be classic along side its inspiration, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, then all’s fair game for discussion. But I think you will appreciate the mystery and surprises inherent here…if I leave them alone!

Bryce Gangel. Photographer: Jenn Udoni and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

So we open in the apartment of The Mistress (yes that is her name in the cast list), portrayed in a challenging and invigorating performance by Bryce Gangel. She is enjoying a quiet leisurely Sunday afternoon doing her nails and listening to a soap opera on the radio. Until she is interrupted by a knock on the door…by? The Wife (again simply and directly named) played by a nervous and maybe somewhat dowdy appearing Heidi Armbruster. The Wife of course is tentative at first, trying to sell cloth and materials for DIY home seamstresses, but once The Mistress admits to knowing her identity, we dive into the circumstances you pictured back at first blush. And you will be rewarded. There is shouting, name calling, recriminations, and a number of thrown inanimate objects. Although it never reaches the intensity I supposed when I saw that the Production Support team included Jamie Cheatham as a Fight Consultant.

Heidi Armbruster Photographer: Jenn Udoni and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

This play was an immediate draw for me because of playwright Eleanor Burgess. Burgess provides dialogue with precise and evocative language and confronts societal issues head on. And after experiencing the Rep’s Fall 2019 presentation of her The Niceties (see my response here), this was a must see show for this season.

So beside the obvious conflict of wife versus mistress, we witness clearly understood defined ‘roles’ of women in the 1950s…and the germs of the feminist movement that evolves in the 1960 -1970s…very subtly at times but more earnest as the play moves forward. And it unfolds in the simple statements about what each woman wants, what they see as their place in life and society, and their goals around personal life and family life. Much beyond the superficial arguments that we anticipate.

But please don’t think we are stuck in the 1950s. The discussion about the roles of women in the 21st Century will be expressed as well…but I can’t elaborate on that at the moment. sssh. But there are a lot of surprises here!!

And don’t let me create a picture in your mind that this is all serious drama…not at all…there are some pretty uproarious bits of comedy here to relieve the tensions. And the audience at the opening night performance took advantage of all of them to heartily laugh out loud. Burgess writes comedy just as well as the dramatic pieces. So do be prepared to let your mood adjust as needed!

[Added note (10/2/2022). I know that there are only two main characters to watch, but keep your eyes and ears open because the dialogue and action can move fast at times and all of it is key to getting the most out of this play. And after another evening of thought, there is another interesting undertone: through their dialogues and interactions both women evolve in their understanding of their situations. The Wife declares that she has done everything right, husband, home, family, but begins to question the common knowledge around those goals…and whether she is happy. And The Mistress, exclaiming about her role at work and her desire to be available to have fun, after admitting to a change in circumstances, starts to covet some of the things that The Wife has.]

Director Marti Lyons flawlessly brings out the characters of The Wife, Armbruster, and The Mistress, Gangel, and sets just the right timing and conflict between the two women in the core of the play. I have admired Lyons work at the American Players Theatre and appreciate seeing her work on the Rep stage. And oh my gosh, but we have a perfect 1950’s apartment set here. I am still trying to figure out how they got their hands on my mother’s refrigerator. Hats off to the Production Staff for that, particularly Kelly Kreutsberg, the Properties Director. And the costumes by Nicholas Hartman, were pitch (and era) perfect as well.

Now there is one more cast member. And I will coyly mention Jim, played by Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari. And yes, it’s just Jim. And Bakhtiari nails the role as a gentleman in charge at times to befuddled at others to just wanting to get the job done. But let me put it this way since I don’t want to give the incredible twists and turns away…Jim appears in something of a Hamlet influenced (in my mind) play within a play. Just going to let that be.

I do have one question for my readers who see this play. Most of us of a certain age have seen Death of a Salesman…and any theater student or serious fan of theater has probably seen it or read it…or seen any number of film versions. BUT for those of you not familiar with the Miller play, were you able to understand the story and dynamics here in Wife of a Salesman? Or doesn’t that really matter?

Wife of a Salesman runs through November 6, 2022 at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Theater. Ticket information is here.

And extra credit reading?

Wife Program and Wife Playguide!

Heidi Armbruster and Bryce Gangel (left). Photographer: Jenn Udoni and courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater