StageWorks Toronto’s Cabaret: Sexy, powerful and boldly staged with a sharp ensemble

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Toshi Murohashi, Jean-Paul Parker & Rachel Hart in Cabaret – photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography

Berlin in the early 1930s: a city teaming with life, creativity and possibility. The Kit Kat Klub: a seedy palace of edgy, playful and raunchy entertainment. And a political storm is brewing that will change everything.

StageWorks Toronto opened its fifth musical, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood), at the George Ignatieff Theatre last night.

Directed by Michael Yaneff, with Music Director Tom Kerr and Choreographer Camille Dziewurski, this production of Cabaret plays all the conflicting dimensions of this story: love and lust, fame and mediocrity, hope and despair. It is both funny and moving, going from entertaining to disturbing – but even the brighter moments have a dark edge.

An excellent, energetic cast does the playful raunch with gusto – and all the while, we know these characters are literally singing and dancing, and sexing, for their lives. The lighter, entertaining atmosphere of the first act grows increasingly foreboding as darkness descends in the second act when the Nazi Party gets a grip on Germany – and this place of song, dance and camaraderie becomes a place of tears, desperation and betrayal. This production goes big on the seedy lust and malevolent politics in its staging, so be prepared for some nudity, sexy times and discomfiting moments.

Shai Tannyan & Hugh Ritchie in Cabaret - photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography
Shai Tannyan & Hugh Ritchie in Cabaret – photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography

Jean-Paul Parker shines as the Emcee, going from playfully saucy in “Wilkommen” and naughty in “Two Ladies” to darkly edgy in “The Money Song” and drunkenly despairing in “I Don’t Care Much.” Shai Tannyan’s Sally Bowles is a vivacious and sensuous British girl gone wild in her search for fame and fortune on her own terms, her flippant attitude covering a fragile heart. From her sexy crooning at the Kit Kat, to her more introspective moments in the driven but vulnerable “Maybe this Time” and the spiralling desperation of “Cabaret,” Tannyan finds the diva entertainer and the lost girl in Sally. As Cliff Bradshaw, Hugh Ritchie doesn’t get as many opportunities to sing as he did as the Balladeer in StageWorks’ Assassins, but he gives a strong performance as the wide-eyed, passionate and somewhat naïve young novelist who comes to Berlin longing for adventure and excitement, and experience – be careful what you wish for.

Deva Neely and Buck Delaney have lovely chemistry as landlady Fraulein Schneider and her fruit seller tenant Herr Schultz, making an adorable couple with “It Couldn’t Please Me More;” and when their relationship goes off the rails, Neely gives a heartbreaking performance with “What Would You Do?” And really nice work from Eric Synnott as the affable, mysterious and crisp Ernst Ludwig, and Melly Magrath as the cheeky and opportunistic Fraulein Kost.

With shouts to the sexy fun talents of the Kit Kat Boys and Girls: Michael Manning (who stepped in to cover another part last night – thoughts go out to Paul Silvestri and his family) and Danik McAfee (who, as the Soldier, also gives an eerily beautiful, foreshadowing performance of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”), Emily Brown, Kathleen Doerkson, Karen Frank, Rachel Hart, Toshie Murohashi and Émilie O’Brien; and Lawrence Stevenson as their stern and lascivious boss, Kit Kat owner Max.

And shouts as well to set/costume designer Michelle Tracey and the orchestra.

StageWorks Toronto’s Cabaret is sexy, powerful and boldly staged – featuring a sharp ensemble.

Cabaret runs at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 26; you can purchase tix in advance online. And you can follow StageWorks Toronto on Facebook and Twitter.

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A moving, infuriating inspiration – StageWorks Toronto’s Parade

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Scott Labonte (as Leo Frank) and Lauren Lazar (as Lucille Frank). Photo by Nicholas Jones.

I saw Parade for the very first time when I went to see StageWorks Toronto’s production last night at the George Ignatieff Theatre.

With music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and book by Alfred Uhry, StageWorks’ production of Parade was directed/choreographed by Lorraine Green-Kimsa, assisted by Michael Yaneff, with music direction by Tom Kerr. Based on a true story of prejudice and gross miscarriage of justice, Parade is a moving, heartbreaking, infuriating inspiration of a musical.

The large energetic cast includes stand-out performances by the two leads: company co-founder Lauren Lazar (Lucille Frank, co-producer) and Scott Labonte (Leo Frank), both doing a lovely job with both the musical demands of their roles, as well as their characters’ arcs. Their relationship distant and strained, Leo is a stiff, frustrated but decent man, while Lucille is prim and loyal – and both face a test of loyalty and strength, both personal and marital, throughout the course of Leo’s trial and incarceration, culminating in the beautiful duet “All The Wasted Time.”

Twaine Ward (Newt Lee & Jim Conley) does a stellar turn, especially as the charming and resourceful Conley, showing great acting and singing chops on “That’s What He Said,” “ A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” and “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall,” the latter including some great choreography for the chain gang scene. Luke Witt has great range as young Frankie Epps, going from cheeky flirt in “The Picture Show” to devastated, vengeful friend in “There is a Fountain/It Don’t Make Sense.” Stephen Flett does a great job with Governor Jack Slaton, a good ‘ole boy who finds himself rethinking the questionable methods he’s been employing to keep things neat and tidy politically. A nice pairing with Kelly Lovatt-Hawkins as his wife Sally, a balancing influence and an equal in their marriage – and a great fun, charming song and dance number in “Pretty Music.” The villains in this story are played with relish and realism – Will van der Zyl’s Hugh Dorsey, the politically ambitious snake of a D.A., and Michael Yaneff as Watson (also co-founder/co-producer), the dangerous, right-wing Christian bible thumper. All of the characters exude their own kind of virtue and all are flawed.

Parade is certainly a strong socio-political commentary of the time, place, people and justice system – but what makes it so compelling is that it’s a very human story. A husband and wife discover the true love and strength of their marriage, and a governor does the right thing despite the likely peril of his political career.

“Parade” is a reference to the annual April 26 Confederate Memorial Day parade – it is also about the parade of humanity. The show opens and closes with “The Old Red Hills of Home” – first sung by a young soldier going off to fight in the Civil War, then at the end led by Frankie Epps, who is going off to fight in WWI. Not much changes in the 50-odd years in between – and one only has to read the newspaper to see that there is work yet to be done on the justice system in the south.

Parade runs at the George Ignatieff Theatre until August 18. Here’s one of the preview vids for the production – the finale of the rousing and somewhat disturbing, given the play’s journey, “Old Red Hills of Home.” You can see all the Parade preview vids on the StageWorks Toronto’s website: