Liza Minnelli

‘Cabaret’: the darkness behind the razzle-dazzle

Unlike the current stage revival, Bob Fosse's film made evil real by making the political personal

Last week’s production in Portland conclusively demonstrates just what a work of dark genius Cabaret is.

No, not the popular Broadway road show that Broadway in Portland brought to Keller Auditorium last week. Sure, this third major incarnation of the venerable show, Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s Tony Award-winning production, boasts some catchy tunes, powerful source material, a still-fascinating concept — using the cabaret setting to both contrast with and comment on the rise of Nazism in inter-World War Germany. And given the alarming rise in neo-Nazi rhetoric and power (including one of the US President’s closest advisors and a significant part of his power base) and resurgent homophobia (anti-gay laws from Russia to Uganda to Arizona to murders in Orlando), it has renewed relevance.

But beset by shoddy casting, acting, and singing and a flawed book, if the current road show was the only version of the immortal Kander & Ebb musical you’d ever seen, you’d wonder why the show has lasted half a century.

Even the orchestra is beautiful in the current road show of ‘Cabaret.’

No, as renowned as the original musical and this long-running Mendes-Marshall revival (which upon its 1993 debut scored a huge financial success, snapped up its own slew of Tonys, and sparked several re-revivals including this one) were, it’s the second major version, the 1972 film version of Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse, that will stand as one of the great artistic creations of the 20th century, one still relevant today. And the differences between what happened onstage last week at the Keller and what appeared onscreen 45 years ago reveal the kinds of tough artistic choices that transform a work of art from good to genius.

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‘Tis the season to be Liberace and Liza

Saffert and Harris team up at CoHo in a camp comedy parody of pop culture's great glitter duo

I recommend bringing a pair of sunglassses to A Liberace and Liza Christmas at CoHo Theater. It’s not the glow of the holidays that’ll strike your eyes, but the universe of sequins donned by Liberace and Liza.

The dynamic duo, performed by David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris, pull out all the stops in a fast-paced cabaret show. Good-natured and slightly off-cuff jokes make the most of the night. When Harris’s 1970s Liza Minelli, the Liza who was a pillhead, a drunk, and stockpiling cocaine with Martin Scorsese, enters Liberace’s stage, he says in his sweetest voice: “It’s wonderful that you finally showed up.”

Snow Harris played Liza in Triangle Production’s Liza Liza Liza! earlier this year, and she has the talented emotional mess down pat. Harris’s performance this time around is the darker and wiser Liza. She’s sexy and confused. She hits her dance points like a pro, but almost trips, as Liza did when she was on her way down, joining the aged Rat Pack on tours before she became a recluse in the ’80s.

The dynamic dup. Photo: JoAnne Jardine

The dynamic dup. Photo: JoAnne Jardine

The chemistry between the imagined pair gives off the sparks of a well-programmed Vegas act that’s being prepared for a television special. Saffert’s Liberace makes plenty of eye contact and bears a wide-mouthed grin, but like the real Liberace you can tell it’s all an act. There’s some repression, some sadness, weighing down the talent. It’s the delicious sarcasm that was reined in by the good manners of the stage that made comedy what it was in the late ’60s through the ’70s. It allowed us to laugh at ourselves, but with a good-hearted kick to the pants. Where Liberace is the straight man in this act, Liza is the joke. She sings the gold hits from the musical Cabaret and in a winsome voice lets the audience know they’re her favorite Christmas songs.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: artists at play

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

When visual artists and show people get together, interesting things often happen. Some collaborations have become legendary: Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural set designs for modern dance icon Martha Graham; Léon Bakst’s expressionistic designs for Ballets Russes. The original designs and even the title for the musical Fiddler on the Roof were inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. More recently, the South African artist William Kentridge’s astonishingly absurdist designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 production of Shostakovich’s equally astonishing and absurd The Nose brilliantly suggested the tone of the Gogol story that inspired the opera. Last season, Portland Opera produced Stravinsky’s classic mid-twentieth-century opera The Rake’s Progress, based on William Hogarth’s famous eighteenth century series of paintings and prints, with David Hockney’s inspired modernized designs.

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Paageno (John Moore) and Sendak's set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Papageno (John Moore) and Sendak’s set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Now Portland Opera is back with a new production of Mozart’s fabulist opera The Magic Flute, using sets and costumes designed in 1980 by the brilliant children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose designs for The Nutcracker were also a mainstay at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet for many years. Sendak’s sets and to a lesser extent his costumes for The Magic Flute are immediately identifiable as his and his alone: in this case the collaboration is an overlay of artistic sensibilities, a discovery of parallels between two artists whose outlooks differ but mesh well. Sendak’s bright color sense and playfully exaggerated figurative style emphasize the childlike aspects of Mozart’s music and the opera’s slightly nonsensical tale. Sendak didn’t so much rethink his source material, the way that Kentridge and Hockney did, as find a level of mutual agreement, a seductive surface that allows the music to dive more deeply behind the mask. He created very traditional tableaux, but in his own  pleasing and agreeable style, and the result is … well, pleasing and agreeable and pertinent.

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Liza’s a cabaret, old chum

Triangle's "Liza! Liza! Liza!" offers a triple dose of Minnelli in show-stopping song and story

The stage is on fire with the radiance of millions of sequins and the over-the-top soprano arias, moving into a hint of silvery vibrato, that made Liza Minnelli a star of stage and screen. Triangle Productions’s newest show willkommens, bienvenues the United States premiere of Liza! Liza! Liza!, an intimate portrait of the manic, pixie-haired diva.

Imagine an evening in a small lounge while Liza delivers her hits and shares the story of her life. This alone is the devil giving his come-hither finger. But on stage are not one Ms. Minnelli, not two, but three. We get the young, vivacious, and eager Liza; the middle-aged, accomplished, and sensual Liza; and the older, sadder, but wiser Liza. They all take on her signature bubbly speaking voice with its sexy and breathy laugh, creating a magic blood harmony of a similar woman’s voice as it changes with her years.

The three Lizas, belting 'em out. Triangle Productions photo.

The three Lizas, belting ’em out. Triangle Productions photo.

More than twenty-four of Liza’s songs provide the soundtrack of her train-wreck life. She’s a Hollywood blue-blood, but her life is punctuated by calamity and her overwhelming drive to have the show go on. The play – by Richard Harris, whose other famous work includes The Avengers British television show – approaches her life and art with sensitivity. Liza struggles with her body image, family history of addiction, chaotic love affairs, illness. Forget (if you can) that she’s Liza Minnelli, and her problems are the same ones many women combat. This puts Liza’s feet firmly on the earth, despite her stardom. In an age when celebrity pretends to be goddess-like in its perfection, it’s refreshing to know that some of our heroes can be great creative forces at least partly because of the obstacles they face and overcome.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: the merry busy month of May

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

If April is the cruelest month (it might not be; we mainly have Tom Eliot’s word for that, and he was a great poet but underqualified as a meteorologist) May is shaping up to be one of the busiest. The calendar’s in almost embarrassingly fertile bloom, with far more going on than any one person could possibly get to. Some of it’s off in the distance a bit: the blend of ancient and contemporary in the choir Cappella Romana’s New Mystics from East & West, May 14-15; Portland Center Stage’s eagerly anticipated revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, opening May 20; a new show at Imago by the contemporary absurdist Carol Triffle, Francesca, Isabella, Margarita on a Cloud, also opening May 20; Mahler’s grand Symphony No. 3, May 21 and 23 at the Oregon Symphony.

But, really, the list for just the coming week is boggling. So let’s get right to it (and keep in mind, this is a very partial selection):

 


 

Cuba's Malpaso Dance Company, Wednesday at White Bird.

Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company, Wednesday at White Bird.

QUEEN, TREY, CUBAN DANCE. An intriguing synchronicity of dance and music arrives in three events from three different companies.

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