October 25th, 2010

Milwaukee Rep, “Cabaret”

We managed to catch the Milwaukee Rep’s production of “Cabaret” Oct. 20, in the last week of its run, and were very pleased with it. This was an unusual production for the Rep, since they don’t usually do musicals, but they went all out with the biggest stage band I’ve ever seen in a “Cabaret” production and enlisting Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink to do the choreography.

Lee Ernst was seemingly tireless as the Master of Ceremonies, who is a lurking presence throughout most of the show. For a man best known as an actor, Ernst handled the singing and dancing required of the M.C. with fine style. One thing I was a bit disappointed in was the costume given to Ernst, which started off quite bizarre from the beginning featuring vinyl boots, corset, and short-sleeved tailcoat with opera gloves. I’m used to the M.C.’s outfit getting more decadent as time goes on along with the KItKat Klub numbers, and kind of missed that effect. However, Ernst himself was excellent in all the many songs and dances the M.C. has.

Unfortunately, that was one area where Kelley Faulkner as Sally Bowles disappointed. She acted well in the critical role, creating a persona quite distinct from the iconic Liza Minnelli characterization, which worked well. Her singing voice is fine, and up to the challenge. However, she did not have the moves or physical presence to put across being a popular nightclub performer. Some of this may have been directorial decision, but neither Georgie nor I found it credible that, no matter how broken up Sally might have been at the end, she could not have stood at the microphone and sung “Cabaret” without, as the current saying goes, “busting some moves.” Nevertheless, she stood there like a post while singing. One wonders what she was doing while all the others were doing dance rehearsals.

Even Jonathan Gillard Daly managed a very creditable bit of soft-shoe, appropriate to his role as Herr Schultz, the Jewish greengrocer.

In fact, if there were a flaw at all with Michael Pink’s choreography, it would be that it was almost too perfect. Looking at the intricate dancing on “The Money Song,” I had to wonder how a rather shabby nightclub would manage to have such good dance routines.

All of the cast was very strong. Geoffrey Hemingway was excellent in the viewpoint role of Clifford Bradshaw, a role that is kind of overshadowed since he doesn’t sing or dance, but he was very expressive and believable in reacting to the fantastic shadow world of Weimar Berlin. Linda Stephens was a standout in the role of landlady Fraulein Schneider, and got a deserved ovation for her angst-ridden rendition of “What Would You Do?” Angela Iannone added to her string of excellent and varied characterizations as the spiteful prostitute, Fraulein Kost. Daly was charming and touching as the aging lonely gentleman. The "Cabaret Girls," "Boys" and the band were all splendid.

It seemed to me this production had a bit more edge than most I’ve seen, ending with a chilling tableau. All in all, an excellent show and we were very pleased with it.

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Florentine Opera, “Rio De Sangre.”

It isn’t every day a new full-scale opera premiers, and it’s very rare for Milwaukee to have the world premier of such a work. However, last weekend, “Rio de Sangre,” with score by Donald R. Davis and libretto by Kate Gale, made its debut here.

Davis is a respected composer, best known for his scores for the “Matrix” film trilogy, but who also has a number of orchestral concert works to his credit. Gale is an award winning poet, novelist, and editor. Together, they created the story of ambition and revolution set in an unnamed fictional South American country.

As the opera opens, Christian Delacruz (Guido LeBron) is being acclaimed President of the Republic after having lead the revolution that overthrew the corrupt and brutal Fuentez (David A. Lange) who is taken away to prison. Delacruz’ family, wife Antonia (Kerry Walsh), daughter Blanca (Ava Pine), and son Miguel (Jon Olsen) stand by and rejoice as he gives a stirring and idealistic speech setting the course for the new government. His friend and comrade of the struggle, Guajardo, now commander of the armed forces, also stands in support.

Things go wrong, however, when the country is wracked by an earthquake. Delacruz directs the relief efforts, nobly refusing to divert resources to rescue his son who was visiting in a remote village, but is in no immediate danger. However, cholera breaks out there, and Miguel, though brought back to the capital, is desperately ill and too weak to survive. His death brings one of the most stirring parts of the opera, as the gathered people join in mourning him. Antonia blames her son’s death on her husband’s inaction, the first major rift in their marriage.

Guajardo counsels Delacruz to get rid of Fuentes and his cabinet as representing a continuing danger to the new regime. Delacruz refuses, saying that he will not become like Fuentes was. Guajardo ‘s fears are seemingly borne out when armed gunmen abduct Blanca and murder her fiancé, Igneo (Vale Ridout).

As the third act opens, and Delacruz receives threatening messages from the kidnappers, Antonia veers between worrying over her daughter’s fate and raging at Delacruz. Distracted, Delacruz agrees with Guajardo that they must get tough on pro-Fuentes forces. While Delacruz is awaiting the kidnappers’ demands, Guajardo returns with the news that he has ‘followed orders’ and had Fuentes and his men executed. “Now we are just like them,” Delacruz groans. When the call from the kidnappers comes, demanding the release of Fuentes as the price of Blanca’s life, his despair is complete. He gives into Guajardo and orders the prisons to be burned with the inmates inside, and for rebellious villages to be bulldozed.

The death of Blanca is also the death of Antonia’s love for Delacruz. When he reminds her that she promised to wash the blood from his hands when they began the revolution, she rebuffs him. Guajardo enters, and, declaring his love for Antonia, succeeds in seducing her while standing over her daughter’s corpse.

By this time, the citizenry is in revolt. Riots are savagely put down by Guajardo’s troops. Delacruz, having had time to put two and two together, realizes that he has been manipulated by Guajardo, but it is too late. When he comes to have Guajardo arrested, he is seized and shot instead. Guajardo spurns Antonia, and leaves her handcuffed to her husband’s dead body.
Guajardo mounts the steps to the balcony of the presidential palace, and, order restored, assumes the leadership, using the identical words of Delacruz’ opening speech, as the lights die and the curtain comes down.

The action of the story is gripping, and the libretto, as represented by the supertitles, very literate and thick with unusual, evocative, and often creepy metaphors wherein the people compare themselves to salamanders or cockroaches. The music is mostly atonal, but effective at setting an emotional tone, and contrasts with the bursts of melodic meringue music in the recurring nightclub scenes. The third acts alternation between imprisoned Blanca wondering what will become of her, what happened to Igneo, and where her father is, and Antonia mourning her daughter’s loss, is haunting. There are many subtle touches in the stage direction. In the nightclub scenes, dancers freeze and seem to move only a “frame” at a time as emphasis shifts to the principals’ internal dialog. As the opera goes on, the dancers’ postures become more desperate and torturous, reflecting the deepening spiritual malaise that has fallen over the country. The riot scene was chilling, with moments of violence being picked out as though by photo flashbulbs.

An interesting thing about the opera is that, although conceived and written in English, the piece is sung in Spanish, with a translation by Alicia Partnoy, an Argentinean poet who survived interment camps in her own country. Being sung in Spanish gives the opera a certain extra authenticity as well as musicality.

While far from a perfect work, “Rio de Sangre” is a very worthy and interesting opera which could very well improve in future productions. I would recommend it for those interested in opera and in new music.

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