At the opening-night performance of this twentieth-anniversary season at Stages St. Louis, executive producer Jack Lane took to the stage to herald the triumphs of the past two decades. Referring to the loyal Stages audiences, he said, "They've watched us grow, they've watched us stumble." Now they can watch it again. The season opener, a slick, sterile production of Cabaret, elevates stumbling to an Olympic-caliber event.
Does anyone at Stages understand what this show is about? In his memoir, Hal Prince (who produced and directed the original 1966 Broadway version) explained that Cabaret was about "the parallel between the spiritual bankruptcy of Germany in the 1920s and our country in the 1960s." Forty years later, this account of wayfarers in the underbelly of Berlin at the dawn of Hitlerism still resonates a message of spiritual bankruptcy. The show is seedy and tacky, and you're not necessarily supposed to feel good about yourself when it's over. But Stages' wildly overproduced exercise in slam-bam escapism presents Berlin through the prism of Las Vegas. Such phantasmagorical staging might work for the "Dreamland" sequence at the end of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, but it's fatally inappropriate here.
The scenic design is bewildering. What is all that distracting scribble that covers the floor? Then the tacky Kit Kat Klub turns out to be more elegant than the Folies Bergère. Although much of the musical plays out in what is described as a modest apartment, here the apartment looks larger than the Grand Foyer at Union Station. There's no reference to its being a basement unit. With those high windows, the place feels so sunken that you might think you're in the bowels of the Pequod.
For the most part, the show's cynical tone eludes the cast. Jayne Paterson appears to have the pipes for amoral nightclub singer Sally Bowles, but her portrayal is charmless and grating. She delivers her dialogue with a range that stretches from clenched to strident. (Who saddled her with that red wig?) As American writer Cliff Bradshaw, the outside observer who must provide the evening with its anchor if Cabaret is to work, David Schmittou is lethargic; the aw-shucks, gee-whiz Jimmy Stewart manner that has served him well in Stages productions like She Loves Me and Big fails him here. He has zilch rapport with Atkinson. Even when they're shouting in each other's faces, they might as well be in separate buildings.
Zoe Vonder Haar fares no better as Cliff's fatalistic landlady. It doesn't help that she is ridiculously costumed in silky gowns that are much too expensive for her station in life, or that the choreography foolishly sweeps her about the stage as if she's Loretta Young, Betty Grable or even Dolly Levi. (But then, none of Kelli Barclay's choreography is rooted in character.) But the real problem is the one-dimensionality of Vonder Haar's performance. She reads the lines as written, nothing more.
As the Kit Kat Klub's creepy Master of Ceremonies, designed to serve as the mirror into our worst selves, David Elder is the most talented performer Stages has imported to St. Louis in memory. Elder has the chops to be an eerie and intimidating emcee. He puts on a flashy show. But his performance lacks menace; there's nothing corrosive or sinister about him. Instead of serving as a mirror of evil, Elder leads us through a jovial evening no more serious than the "Springtime for Hitler" number in The Producers.
Ultimately all these shortcomings and lack of space precludes a more complete list are the responsibility of director Michael Hamilton, who is clearly the wrong person for this play. In his pre-show remarks, executive producer Lane threw out lots of Stages stats: scores of productions, thousands of performances, even more thousands of hours of work for St. Louis actors. But Lane omitted the most significant statistic of all: the number of directors Stages has hired during its twenty-year existence. Apart from the occasional asterisk, that number remains at one. Yet it is a fundamental tenet that theater requires collaboration in order to grow; you cannot take seriously any theater company, anywhere, that always uses the same director. The sad and easily avoidable result of this creativity-stunting policy is on view for all to see: Vanity theater doesn't get much more wrongheaded than Stages' Cabaret.