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Production

Cabaret

Company

Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

23/07/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Esplanade Theatre

Rating

****

It Couldn't Please Me More

I'm not a huge fan of musicals although, as a theatre reviewer, I have made the effort to gain a foothold in the genre and have thus seen a fair few over the years nonetheless. For some odd reason, I find it particularly hard to follow narrative threads when the text is being sung and therefore find myself losing focus after a while if the entire script is set to music. I generally fare much better with musicals that combine spoken text with songs and, indeed, found myself completely engrossed this time by Toy Factory's Cabaret.

Much credit must go to the work of producer Felina Khong and director Beatrice Chia-Richmond who assembled a top-notch team of artists to create this lavish spectacle, whose spiritual cousin and millennial cinematic equivalent must arguably be the fizzy and fantastic Moulin Rogue. In fact, I found the most compelling character in Cabaret to be neither the naïve and straight-laced young American writer Clifford Bradshaw who travels to Germany in the 1930s seeking adventure, nor Sally Bowles, the lead player at the seedy nightclub whom Clifford eventually falls in love with, but the city itself and its Kit Kat Klub.

I had problems with Toy Factory's Bent (also directed by Chia) in 2003 but my favourite scene in it was one set in a wartime Berlin nightclub because I felt the company had captured the mood and time brilliantly. And in Cabaret, 1930s Berlin also came vividly to life because of the brazen, scantily-clad Kit Kat Klub dancers in their raunchy dance numbers and because of the heady blend of sex, play and danger in the air. The experience was particularly satisfying because production values were high across the board. There was not a single weak link in the company's efforts to bring Joe Masteroff's book to the stage, whether in terms of costumes, music, lighting or choreography. I was especially impressed by the spirited and committed performances by the sometimes gender-bending ensemble cast of dancers. Often, the ensemble is overlooked, particularly when there are big stars in the main cast but by the sheer power of their over-the-top but always knowing performances, they were anything but forgettable.

Speaking of big stars, international recording superstar Fei Xiang was certainly solid in his opening number Willkommen as the Emcee but he began to truly dazzle only as the play progressed and he increasingly let himself get caught up in the theatrical excesses of his flamboyant role. The Money Song and the bawdy Two Ladies were personal highlights but his electrifying presence was especially stirring in the sobering Finale because he captured so well the utter collapse of his now-imprisoned character, one branded with both the deadly yellow star and the pink triangle. Emma Yong too acquitted herself admirably as the iconic Sally Bowles. The fact is that even though her character's narrative arc did involve complications and conflicts, she, like most characters in musicals, lacked truly complex shadings and subtleties - which is fine as I certainly don't mean that remark as a criticism in any way. Musicals are, after all, essentially about the melodrama and big hits and Yong played up the vibrancy and almost cartoonish quality of her kitten-with-a-whip character with much success. I particularly enjoyed her full-bodied, show-stopping performance of the signature song Cabaret. It was no easy feat to step into Liza Minnelli's shoes but Yong pulled it off with great flair and as a student acquaintance of mine pointed out, she made us feel proud of our Singapore talents and certainly gave the next generation of artists something to aspire to.

Both Fei Xiang and Yong were well-supported by an outstanding supporting cast which included Mark Richmond, Celine Rosa Tan and, most notably, Karen Tan and Daniel Jenkins. Karen Tan (Fraulein Schneider) and Jenkins's (Herr Schultz) quieter and mature, nuanced performances made the older couple's tender, star-crossed love story a particularly moving counterpoint to the razzle-dazzle of the rest of the play. Never was a funny little love song about pineapples more hilarious or strangely sad. Celine Rosa Tan's feisty performance as Fraulein Kost, the woman all the sailor boys know both by name and in the biblical sense, was full of the self-confidence and vitality required of the part and showed the actress to have fully realised the potential hinted at in her earlier work with The Necessary Stage and World-in-Theatre.

The show was not without its flaws. Sometimes the music overpowered the vocals of the actors, particularly (and oddly) Fei Xiang's, and while the likeable Jason Chan had a pleasant enough demeanour on stage, he couldn't lift the juvenile lead role of Clifford Bradshaw beyond its rather bland trappings, though that is arguably more the fault of the genre itself than it is Chan's.

However, these were minor when set against the much stronger elements in the rest of the work. It was truly impressive, for example, that for all the glitz and glamour of the elaborate staging, so many of the disturbing themes of the book still came through. I literally shuddered when Richmond was revealed to be part of the Nazi party and led the crowd at Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider's engagement party to sing Tomorrow Belongs to Me as a chilling pro-Hitler anthem, while Cliff, Sally, Fraulein Schneider and especially the Jewish Herr Schultz looked around in disbelief and, worse, fear at the sudden realisation that their friends were not as they had seemed and could turn against them at any time.

This, after all, resonates in the story of our own age though, thankfully, to a much smaller extent. Still, we live now in a time of paranoia where we are told we can no longer trust our own neighbours. Many are still judged by their race, religion or whom they choose to love and we are told what we are allowed to read, see and celebrate in books, plays, movies and television. And the decisions of a few can still lead the whole world into war.

And all we have to fight against this is what we have always ever had - love and hope. In Cabaret, though, it is not enough.


"Never was a funny little love song about pineapples more hilarious or strangely sad"

Credits

Book by Joe Masteroff

Music by John Kander

Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Director: Beatrice Chia-Richmond

Music Director: Saidah

Choreographer: Zaini Mohd Tahir

Production Designer: Goh Boon Teck

Costume Designer: Frederick Lee

Lighting Designer: Mac Chan

Hair Designer / Stylist: Ashley Lim

Sound Designer: Mike Walker

Vocal Coach: Amanda Colliver

Make-Up Design: M-A-C Pro Team

Fight Choreographer: Lim Yu-Beng

Production Manager: Pierre-Andre Salim

Stage Manager: Woo Hsia Ling

Technical Manager: Teo Kuang Han

Properties Mistress: Pebble Tan

Wardrobe Mistress: Engie Hoo

Producer: Felina Khong

Musicians: Michael Veerapen, Gerald Chia, Desmond Chow, Feng Ying Yi, Fabian Lim, Kenneth Lun, Wilson Ong, Vikneskumar Veerappan and Colin Yong

Cast: Fei Xiang, Emma Yong, Jason Chan, Karen Tan, Daniel Jenkins, Mark Richmond, Celine Rosa Tan, Farah Dawood, Rosanna Hyland, Cynthia Lee Macquarrie, Danielle O'Malley, Stephanie Van Den Driesen, Rebecca Lynn Whitby, Shirley Wong, Desmond Chen, Jay Espano, Zachary Goh, Andy Keegan, Mohamad Nazri Ishak, RJ Rosales and Bernd Windhofer

More Reviews of Productions by Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble

More Reviews by Kenneth Kwok

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.