Reviews

Aspen Times -

June 30, 2017

The musical "Hairspray" is a family show and also a subversive epic of social outcasts. It's a celebration of early 1960s teen culture that pays tribute to the rock 'n' roll and Buster Brown-scuffing dance moves of the day while also staring down the era's segregation and bigotry. In tone, it's both sincere and satirical — by turns campy and unselfconscious.

This, of course, is why we love it. Like us and like the America it chronicles, "Hairspray" is a bundle of contradictions.

Theatre Aspen's exuberant production of the Tony-winning contemporary Broadway classic opened Wednesday and runs through Aug. 19 at the Hurst Theatre in Rio Grande Park.

It stars the magnetic young actress Taylor Hartsfield as Tracy Turnblad, the plump and peppy teen in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of getting on a local TV dance show and ends up as a crusader for racial integration. As Tracy finds love and fame and acceptance and social justice, she and this irresistible show will cure you (at least temporarily) of your 21st-century cynicism.

Hartsfield nails Tracy's sunny optimism and enthusiasm while infusing a charming awkwardness into Tracy's dance moves. She can rattle the mountaintops in her big solo numbers like "I Can Hear the Bells" and the opener "Good Morning Baltimore," but Hartsfield is also game as a team player.

She's surrounded by a feisty supporting cast. The standouts in the young ensemble are a charismatic Stephen Scott Wormley as Seaweed, star of "Negro Day" on "The Corny Collins Show," and Abigail Isom as his over-eager love interest and Tracy's bestie Penny. But everybody gets a moment to shine, from Denis Lambert's subversive spin on the Dick Clark-esque TV host Corny Collins to Tamara Anderson as Motormouth Maybelle (her gospel-tinged lament "I Know Where I've Been" is a showstopper) to Annabel O'Hagan as the odious bully Amber and Christian Probst as the cloying teen idol with a conscience Link Larkin to utility players Michael Gorman and Kayla Ryan Walsh, who show up memorably in multiple small roles.

And Kevin Carolan is a scene-stealing one-liner machine in drag as Edna, Tracy's shut-in mother. It's become an iconic role, originated by Divine in John Waters' 1988 film, by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway and played by John Travolta in the 2007 Hollywood musical. Carolan's is a deeply empathetic Edna, performed with a heartfelt approach that translates well in the intimate setting of the Theatre Aspen tent. Edna's big number — the cute and ridiculous "Timeless to Me" duet with her gag shop owner husband Wilbur (Patrick Richwood) — brings down the house.

This Aspen production — directed by Mark Martino, who has become a master of the tent over the past decade — makes full use of the Hurst's thrust stage and aisles. High-spirited large ensemble numbers like "Without Love" and the finale "You Can't Stop the Beat" spill off the stage and into the crowd. For "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" — performed by three pairs of mothers and daughters — Martino has positioned actors on the stage and in each of the main aisles.

Paul Black's cartoonish sets, which arrive and exit through a retractable door that's plastered in early-'60s advertisements, are just over-the-top enough to situate us in Waters' bizarre and demented alternate reality but authentic enough to keep us grounded in the tumultuous historic moment of "Hairspray."

"Hairspray" has been a Broadway smash, a feature film musical and, most recently, a live television event. So chances are you already know some of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's songs, and you've seen some version of it before you walk into the Hurst. But you've never seen it quite like this. Theatre Aspen's dazzling cast and thoughtful creative team make it new.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Times - Theatre Aspen Buyer & Cellar Review

July 26, 2016

People who need people are the luckiest people in the world, as the bard Barb said. But people who seem to have everything, like Barbra Streisand, may need people to mind the shops in the decadent personal European-styled mini-malls housed beneath their sprawling Malibu estates.

This is the premise of Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar,” running through Aug. 19 in a Theatre Aspen production at the Hurst Theatre. The one-man show stars a sweet and hysterical Jeffrey Correia as the guy hired to be the shopkeeper in Streisand’s luxurious lair.

The play opens with the house lights up and Correia strolling into the theater, humming “Memories,” sitting on the edge of the stage, and explaining in no uncertain terms that “This is a work of fiction,” repeating himself a great many times to protect this unlicensed play from the “litigious” Ms. Streisand.

“None of this is real,” he says with a smirk. “I don’t exist.”

What does exist, however, is Streisand’s 2010 coffee table book “My Passion for Design,” which details her subterranean mall and provides the kernel of truth for the comedy’s charming blend of camp and sentimentalism.

“What if someone had to work down there?” Correia asks before the lights go down. He then becomes Alex More, an out-of-work actor recently fired from a gig in Disneyland’s Toon Town who finds himself as the lone employee of Streisand’s mall, on hand to serve its only customer.

He is issued a shopkeeper’s uniform (Donna Karan, natch) and gets to work dusting and manning Streisand’s meticulous shoppes (“shop-eeze” in More’s smirking appraisal) including a vintage clothing boutique, doll store, popcorn stand and frozen yogurt bar.

His retelling of his first few days at work is a laugh-a-beat whirlwind. Alex’s first meeting with “the lady of the house” is laugh-out-loud hilarious. She descends the basement stairs and tests a flustered and star-struck Alex, forcing him to improvise as she haggles with him over the price of a bubble-blowing doll. (Why is she buying a doll she already owns, in her basement, and presenting a coupon? Why not? Locals who’ve tended to the massive manses and egos of Aspen’s own eccentric mega-rich will no doubt recognize some of the personality quirks and power dynamics at play here.)

Alex and Babs bond and soon become something like friends, with Streisand retelling the story of the water bottle she used as a doll during her hardscrabble childhood and the cold bed she shared with her mother (“Colder than Aspen!”) and Alex eventually begins serving as her acting coach.

Loving Babs is, as Alex puts it, is his “gay birthright,” but he’s no superfan. His more effusive boyfriend, Barry, is a card-carrying aficionado. Alex’s rapid-fire back-and-forths at home with Barry — including an epic rant about “The Mirror Has Two Faces” — prove to be a high point. And their clash over Alex’s subservient role provides the play’s heart.

Directed by Maurice LaMee, “Buyer & Cellar” makes use of a simple set backed by surreal projections of images rendered in the Max Ernst style — a pair of pristinely manicured hands, for instance, holding a doll house — that enhance the absurdity of the one-man onstage action.

Whether the play works, of course, depends on its sole cast member. Correia brings a subtle physicality and endearing tenderness to the role. He’s always moving, ever gesticulating, and transforming into eight characters using simple shifts in posture and voice. He embodies Streisand, for instance, with a slight squint and purse of his lips, adding her hint of Brooklyn to his voice, raising his wrists and landing in a sweet spot between homage and parody.

Correia’s performance is the accumulation of small gestures combined with impeccable timing (his Streisand’s slight gasp at the mention of a rug from Home Depot, for example, lands perfectly). The effect is like listening to a great story, told by a good friend with a snarky streak who has a knack for off-the-cuff impressions, a witty turn of phrase and encyclopedic pop culture fluency.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, there’s a falling out between Alex and Barbra. The turn the play takes at that point elevates it from what might have been just a funny diversion about celebrity excess. Somewhere between the frozen yogurt machine and the doll shop, “Buyer & Cellar” hits a true and touching note about the loneliness of fame, the meaning of friendship and the trap of materialism.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Times - Dear Edwina at Theatre Aspen

July 22, 2016

Handling gross little brothers, dealing with rude party guests, remembering how to set a table and politely turning down weird foods. Such are the moral conundrums of the kids seeking advice from the plucky and wise Edwina Spoonapple in Theatre Aspen’s production of “Dear Edwina.”

Running through Aug. 13 at the Hurst Theatre, the family-friendly musical comedy follows a day in the life of the 13-year-old Michigan “advice-giver extraordinaire” as she stages a backyard musical, responding to letters in the “Dear Abby” tradition. Edwina (Alie Walsh Dame) is something of a schoolyard Emily Post, doling out her authoritative etiquette advice in earworm-y song-and-dance numbers.

On the day we meet Edwina and her band of neighborhood boys and girls, they’re performing for a crowd that includes a talent scout from the Kalamazoo Advice-a-Palooza — and Edwina is eager to impress.

Kids are definitely the target audience here (it’s recommended for ages 4 and older). But “Dear Edwina,” by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, is more than clever enough to keep adults entertained over its fast-paced 60-minute running time, and the music and choreography is remarkably varied. There’s an opera aria, a tap-dancing number, a dash of ballet — even a reggae-tinged one about saving money. I defy anyone to walk out of the theater not humming the table-setting instructional anthem “Fork, Knife, Spoon” or the infectiously lilting one about overcoming shyness titled “Hola, Lola.”

The fresh-faced, energetic cast is led by Dame, who also co-choreographs with director Paige Price. Outfitted in a red polka-dot dress and beaming smile, Dame nails the can-do kid who rallies the neighborhood while also managing to plumb some of the depths of early adolescent anxiety. “Up on the Fridge,” her song about longing to do something great enough to land a ribbon on the Spoonapple kitchen refrigerator alongside her over-achieving siblings, is a highlight. The song, like this musical, manages to be cute and funny while nailing some truisms of growing up. And the uplifting closer “Sing Your Own Song” is the best in the show.

Marcus Shane (also seen as Pepper in Theatre Aspen’s “Mama Mia!” this summer) plays an eager, awkward boy with an unrequited crush on Edwina, while four Theatre Aspen apprentices round out the cast — playing multiple roles with relish (Ryne Nardecchia, for instance, makes a fantastic quick change from Edwina’s flustered new neighbor into monster in the song “Frankenguest”).

In the background, Spencer Hansen plays keyboards and Nicole Patrick plays drums, each landing a few memorable laughs of their own as Edwina’s brother and sister.

The show continues a wonderful recent run of family shows at Theatre Aspen — “Junie B. Jones,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Little Women” — that have shunned more insipid fare for kid-friendly musicals that grown-ups can enjoy, too.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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The Aspen Times - Review: 'Mamma Mia!' at Theatre Aspen

July 1, 2016

Theatre Aspen’s “Mamma Mia!” is a big, rowdy, Lycra-clad wad of cotton-candy escapism propelled by a disco ball, tap-dancing in scuba flippers and 20-plus thumping ABBA earworms.

Think you’re too high-brow? You’re wrong. Resistance is futile. You will be on your feet. And you will be dancing along to “Waterloo” during the boisterous encore.

The musical, which opened Tuesday and runs through Aug. 20 at the Hurst Theatre, sucks you into its abandon like the dance floor at a great wedding reception and leaves you sated in the same kind of warm-hearted exhaustion.

The young Sophie (played with a sweet, soft-voiced restraint by Cristina Oeschger) is set to be married at a taverna in the Greek Isles, owned by her mother, Donna (Anne Brummel), who led a rocking disco-era trio back in the day: Donna and the Dynamos. Hoping for her father to give her away, but not knowing who her father is, Sophie invites three men from her mother’s bohemian past to the wedding: Harry the banker (Mark Price), Bill the globe-trotting writer (Dane Agostinis) and Sam the lovable rogue who got away (Jim Ballard). They’re none the wiser to the Sophie’s plot and are met at the tavern by Donna’s aging disco-diva besties — Tanya (Elise Kinnon) and Rosie (Margot Moreland).

The action plays out on a Swiss Army knife of a set — decked out in the Aegean blues and stone whites of the Greek isles ­— that revolves to become a bedroom, a beach and the taverna.

It’s an ensemble-driven show where just about everybody in the cast of 20 gets their time to shine, but Donna and her Dynamos shine brightest on showstoppers like “Super Trouper” and “Dancing Queen,” with Moreland taking center stage on “Take a Chance on Me” and Kinnon doing so for “Does Your Mother Know.” Brummel brings down the house with an emotive “The Winner Takes It All” and a tender, relatively subdued duet with Price on “Our Last Summer.”

The sitcom premise and jukebox musical setup (and all that ABBA) might be a recipe for a forgettable diversion of a musical, but Brummel brings emotional heft to her Donna. Her introspective performance and the pain in her face through much of the second act bring to the surface Donna’s single-mom stress, the anguish of seeing her daughter leave the nest and the emotional confusion of rekindling a decadesold romance or three. This might seem ridiculous for a regional production of “Mamma Mia!” but this is what often makes the tiny Hurst Theatre a fascinating home for a Broadway musical — no matter where you’re sitting in the less than 200 seats around the thrust stage, you’re seeing the story play out in extreme close-up, which makes for some extreme emotional immediacy. So, between the sequins and the slapstick of this good-time show that no doubt earns the exclamation point in its title, this “Mamma Mia!” also gets poignant.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Times - Review: 'Other Desert Cities' at Theatre Aspen

August 12, 2015

You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! No, really. Going home for the holidays with the Wyeth family in Theatre Aspen’s “Other Desert Cities” is a riveting emotional roller coaster of a theatrical experience.

This combustible, compelling production of Jon Robin Baitz’s family drama, directed by Sarna Lapine, opened last week and runs through Aug. 22 at the Hurst Theatre.

Polly and Lyman Wyeth are old guard Hollywood Republicans, who proudly call their friend Ronald Reagan “Ronnie” and staunchly defend the Iraq war (the action is set mostly on Christmas Eve 2004). Lyman, a movie star turned politician and culture warrior, is cut from the same charismatic cloth as Reagan, but his kids are no fans of the act. Their Palm Springs home is host to a tense reunion, with Polly’s sister Silda, fresh out of rehab, and their TV producer son, Trip. Their daughter Brooke, home for the holidays from New York, drops a bombshell and reveals she’s written a family memoir.

The ghost of the Wyeth’s first son, who died after joining a radical group that bombed an army recruiting station in the 1970s, is ever-present. When the family begins reading Brooke’s memoir, which revisits that dark episode, sparks fly and the secrets of the Wyeths’ past engulf them all.

Baitz cleverly mines generational conflict, family dysfunction and the foibles of the idle rich for laughs early on - and cuts the tension with biting humor throughout - but “Other Desert Cities” is ultimately a devastating study of familial bonds and loyalty.

Designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdam’s evocative one-piece living room set screams Palm Springs. But if you traded the palm trees and tennis whites for antler chandeliers and ski gear, the play could easily be set in a Red Mountain mansion among Aspen’s elite.

A stellar five-member cast manages to shape Baitz’s characters into three dimensions. No small feat, as in lesser hands these could easily be WASP-y caricatures.

Megan Byrne’s Brooke is a mess of psychological trouble and medication, trying to empower herself through writing – she’s by turns defiant, desperate and despairing. Her primary foil is her mother, the aloof and vindictive Polly, played with vicious delight by Lori Wilner. Her husband, played by Jack Wetehrall, is a hard shell of patrician rectitude with widening cracks that expose his disappointments and regrets as the show progresses.

Brooke’s brother, an aging Gen X-er who has found fortune producing a ridiculous reality TV show, gets the bulk of laugh lines early on – delivered impeccably in a naturalistic performance by Curran Connor (whose comic timing is also on display this summer in his broad take on Smee in “Peter and the Starcatcher”). Peggy J. Scott, playing the drunk and debauched old Aunt Silda, turns what could be a clownish Hollywood stereotype into a pivotal supporting role that underscores this dysfunctional family’s dynamics and the ties that both bind and break.

It’s worth noting that “Other Desert Cities” marks Theatre Aspen’s first foray into sober drama in seven years. Here’s hoping that audiences support this challenging brand of high caliber theater and keep plays like “Other Desert Cities” in the company’s summer repertory for years to come.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Times - Roses and thorns

August 10, 2015

A rose to Theatre Aspen for its return to staging serious drama with “Other Desert Cities.” The taut, supremely acted play (running through Aug. 22) packs a wallop and has made for a well-rounded summer of theater in the tent in a season that offers something for everyone.

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Aspen Times - Review: Peter and the Starcatcher at Theatre Aspen

July 24, 2015

Peter Pan’s origin story gets a funny, pun-y, inventively presented and irreverently performed treatment in Theatre Aspen’s “Peter and the Starcatcher.” The play, which opened last week and runs through Aug. 21, is a love letter to the power of imagination.

Resourcefully staged in the cozy confines of the Hurst Theatre with a simple wood set, the ensemble cast uses ropes and ladders and toy boats and a whole lot of imagination to bring the audience onto the high seas and, eventually, to Neverland.

Early on, when a flying cat appears (actually a ragged stuffed animal held by cast member) an actor addresses the audience directly: “We ask you now to imagine a grown cat in flight.” The crowd is thus invited to play along.

The cast doubles often as scenery, lining up to form the inner sanctum of a ship, creating the waves of a stormy ocean and the tangles of a jungle and — with some rope and cloth — transforming into the mouth of a flying crocodile. Though the tools are simple, this stagecraft creates some truly special effects. Seeing it come together, flittingly and with childlike spontaneity, is as exhilarating as theater gets.

Adapted from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s popular novels, watching the show is like reading a great book as a child — the kind that inspires makeshift costumes and outlandish new plotlines and a bedroom floor of lava.

The plot here involves two ships — the Wasp and the Neverland— sailing to Rangoon. One of them holds some precious cargo — a magical dust, known here as “star stuff” — along with three forsaken orphans, the nobleman’s daughter Moll, and a foppish pirate known as “Black Stache.”

From these beginnings, by way of a storm and a shipwreck (and a trippy serenade from a school of newborn mermaids and a death-defying run-in with the natives of Mollusk Island) the familiar world of Peter Pan begins to come into focus.

Thom Christopher Warren has the plum part as Black Stache — that’s Captain Hook before the hook. He’s clumsy, prone to malapropisms, admittedly “ruthless but toothless” and desperately seeking a heroic foil to his villainy.

Warren steals many a scene with this frisky turn, but leaves room for laughs from the rest of the cast, which is filled with game playmates — from his beleaguered first mate Smee (Curran Connor) to the food-obsessed orphan Ted (Spencer Hansen) to Chief Fighting Prawn (Allen E. Read) who speaks mostly in the names of Italian cuisine to a canoodling couple played by Richard Vida and a mischievous Jon Peterson in drag. Just about everybody gets a share of the snappy dialogue, which manages to sneak in a Donald Trump joke and an ironic paean to “regional theater in the Rockies”

The cast’s relentless mugging and hamming it up may grate on some grown-up theatergoers, and its bawdy humor may call for ear-muffing children younger than 13 or so, but it’s all in good fun if you’re willing to believe.

The show’s considerable heart comes from Michelle Coben as Molly and Aidan Sank as the orphan, too poor to afford a name, who would be Peter. All the madcap hijinks in this proto-Neverland are emotionally grounded by this pair’s well-acted adolescent angst and earnest first love.

By the time Tinkerbell shows up and Peter takes flight, you’re likely to float with him.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Times - Junie B Jones the Musical: Review

July 17, 2015

Junie B. Jones has a journal and a new school year ahead of her.

“Now all I need is some adventures,” she declares at the outset of “Junie B. Jones the Musical,” running at Theatre Aspen’s Hurst Theatre through Aug. 15.

Over the next hour, the colorful children’s show follows our peppy heroine through the ups and downs of first grade — from deciding what to draw during drawing time to finding out she needs glasses to navigating cafeteria politics.

The enthusiastic young cast of eight includes Aspen’s Lyon Hamill and is led by Gianna Yanelli in a pitch-perfect turn as the rambunctious Junie. Clad in red overalls, purple tights and Chuck Taylors, Junie records all of the first-grade drama (her “top secret personal beeswax”) in a marble composition notebook. The set itself is literally an open book, too, converting into a classroom and cafeteria, among other settings, in the first fully-staged production of the show outside of New York.

Based on the popular books by Barbara Park, there’s plenty of silly, kid-pleasing fun to be had in songs like “Lucille, Camille, Chenile,” in which Junie’s best friend from kindergarten (a catty Kelsey Schergen) ditches her for a pair of new besties, proclaiming, “You’re a pretty good friend/And we had good times/But what can compare with a friend that rhymes?”

The show chronicles the joys of a school kickball tournament — extolled in two songs — and there’s an ode to the lunch lady, Mrs. Gutzman, the “queen of snacks.” She’s played winningly by Joe Bettles, who earns laughs from children as well as adults for his cross-dressing turn (and his slapsticky takes on Junie’s dad and her teacher, Mr. Scary).

“Junie B. Jones” has its share of poignant moments, as well, exemplified in the wonderful closing number, “Writing Down the Story of My Life,” which comes as Junie finishes filling her journal and reflects on the joy of self-expression.

The grammatical and spelling controversies surrounding the “Junie” books is sort of beside the point here. Other than some double negatives and a misuse of “good” as an adverb, Junie sets a fine example (grammatical and otherwise) for the show’s primary audience — children aged 4 to 8 — and she speaks like them.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Review: 'Cabaret' at Theatre Aspen - Review: 'Cabaret' at Theatre Aspen

July 3, 2015

It’s the end of the world and you’re dancing with Sally Bowles in Theatre Aspen’s intimate and highly stylized new production of “Cabaret.”

The company’s take on the Broadway classic, which opened June 26, immerses the audience in the seedy Kit Kat Club and the seductive, pansexual nightlife of pre-World War II Berlin.

Jon Peterson nails the bad-boy act and bawdy schmaltz of the debauched Emcee, around whom the show’s fabulous ensemble revolves.

Performing in numerous states of undress, Peterson brings a pouty-lipped charm and sexual anarchy to the role. He’s an increasingly menacing force of nature on stage as the show proceeds, his face make-up growing grotesque, his patter less cute and more ominous, coinciding with the Nazi party’s rise to power.

Peterson is the kind of performer who can do anything. This role demands nothing less. He delivers chorus-line kicks, improvises raucous audience interactions and leads a handful of show-stopping dance numbers, such as “Money,” performed with four showgirls around an oversized Reichsmark coin and “Two Ladies,” a playful threesome danced in a bed sheet. His take on “I Don’t Care Much” is a haunting revelation — a ghoulish punk ballad, performed in drag.

There are no notable lulls in this show and no weak spots in the cast — even the German and English accents from this American cast are passable to pretty good — and the onstage band performs the score gracefully, with an appropriate touch of mischief.

Kirsten Wyatt plays Bowles, the trainwreck chanteuse, as a woman cracking at the edges. She wears the diva’s insecurities and broken soul on her face — a powerful approach in the intimate confines of the Hurst Theatre, where an actor’s expression can be as key to a performance as her dance steps and voice. She offers a heartwrenching take on “Maybe This Time” and sings through tears in the iconic title song.

And though it grows dark and tense by the end of act one, Theatre Aspen’s “Cabaret,” like the Kit Kat itself, offers its share of escapist fun. As we’ve come to expect from other Mark Martino-directed shows at Theatre Aspen, it makes excellent use of the tent theater and its thrust stage. If you sit on an aisle, be prepared to find a scantily clad Kit Kat girl or boy in your lap. If you sit at one of the cafe tables in the first row, don’t be surprised if you end up onstage.

The story of “Cabaret” is ostensibly about Cliff (Allen E. Reed), the struggling American writer coming to Berlin to finish a novel, who falls in with Sally and her seedy cohort after New Year’s Eve at the infamous Kit Kat Club. But the Emcee and Sally, as in most any production of “Cabaret,” steal the show here. Supporting players do manage to make an impression, however, especially Fraulein Schneider (Lori Wilner) in “What Would You Do?” and Reed in a sweet “Perfectly Marvelous.”

Aspenite Nikki Boxer, doing double-duty as a Kit Kat Girl and as Cliff’s prostitute neighbor, provides a musical high point of the show in “Married,” showing off her classical singing chops (in German, no less) and later showing up on the accordion.

The two-story set and row of nightclub tables help immerse you in the Kit Kat’s low-rent decadence. But the set is static, and has to double as a train station and as Cliff’s apartment, among other locations. So the show’s lighting helps transform it when we leave the club, yet always keeps us in its smoky milieu, until the show’s crushing conclusion, when a hail of light signals the doom laying ahead for bohemian Berlin.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Daily News - Cabaret Debuts at Theatre Aspen

June 27, 2015

At the beginning of “Cabaret,” the emcee – a joker-like, flamboyant character – invites people to “leave your troubles outside.” Inside, dancing, drinking, drugs and orgies await. There are sexy women and beautiful men. There’s lots of money. It’s a “tawdry” place that feels like a “bunch of kids playing in their home, getting naughtier until their parents get home.” But the emcee insists on relaxing. And the bacchus spiral continues.

This could be any place – Las Vegas, New York or Aspen – except it’s 1930s Berlin. And so any seedy undercurrent that might occur in a traditional setting is trumped by the rise of Nazism and the escalating division between classes, races, and religions. This is the setting for “Cabaret,” and the Kit Kat Club serves as its canvas. The Master of Ceremonies (Jon Peterson, who’s been nominated for several national awards in the role) oversees the questionable club and its star, Sally Bowles (Broadway actress Kristen Wyatt), a British singer who embraces the nightclub lifestyle.

When American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Allen E. Read) arrives on the scene, he also grows enamored with its inertia and quickly settles into Berliner life, renting a room from Fraulien Kost (Lori Wilner) in a German boarding house, which is home to some ladies of the night and an older Jewish man, Herr Schultz (Richard Vida). The flighty Bowles eventually moves in with Bradshaw, first out of necessity and then for love. As the musical unfolds, the animated and vibrant Kit Kat Club becomes a facade for the serious schisms occurring behind its curtains. Bowles and Bradshaw grapple with reality that takes place outside of the sheets, and relationships are tested as impending Nazism creeps into the Germans’ lives.

This production of “Cabaret,” presented by Theatre Aspen and directed by Mark Martino, transforms Rio Grande Park’s Hurst Theater into the Kit Kat Club. Small cocktail tables line the stage, and a live band performs on the club’s second floor. As actors weave through aisles and interact with the audience, they become a part of the action, and history, that unfolds on the stage in front of them. “Cabaret” debuted on Broadway in 1966, winning eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, and has been reproduced around the world ever since. Most recently, a Broadway revival in 2014 starred Alan Cumming as the Emcee and Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, and Sienna Miller as Sally Bowles. That run, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, ended in March. Cumming also starred in the 1998 Broadway revival, winning the Tony for Best Leading Role in a Musical that year.

Theatre Aspen brings it to town for the nonprofit’s 32nd season. Last year, the theater was transformed into the British countryside for its production of “The Full Monty” and “Cabaret” is equally as racy, if not more edgy. Artistic Director Paige Price is pushing the programming, and it’s working. Not only was she recently named to the Tony Awards nominating committee, but Theatre Aspen also received seven nominations for the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Awards, including Outstanding Season for a Theatre Company. Besides “The Full Monty,” the 2014 season also featured “Little Women” and new production “The Cottage.”

This season, Theatre Aspen will present four productions instead of three, the first time it’s done so since 2008. In addition to “Cabaret,” “Junie B. Jones,” an adaptation to the Barbara Parks’ best-selling books, opens June 29; “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a prequel to “Peter Pan,” opens July 16; and Pulitzer Prize nominee “Other Desert Cities” opens Aug. 4. Its season will extend a week longer than usual for the Aspen Theatre Fest, two weeks geared toward fostering new works by emerging playwrights and musical teams as Theatre Aspen continues to develop its residency programs. But “Cabaret,” its summer headliner, runs through Aug. 15 so audiences have two months to catch the show.

“Life is a cabaret, old chum,” Bowles sings at the end, with a tone much more tragic than how the musical begins. The emcee – a once spirited, feisty character – asks, “Where are your troubles now?” And though the setting could have been anywhere, the audience is immediately relieved their problems are not part of those onstage. christine@aspendailynews.com

BY CHRISTINE BENEDETTI, TIME OUT STAFF WRITER PHOTOS BY JORDAN CURET 

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