The Arts

Cabaret and The Philadelphia Story At the Shaw Festival

Cabaret and The Philadelphia Story At the Shaw Festival featured image

From Stage to Screen—and back to Stage

Cabaret and The Philadelphia Story
At the Shaw Festival
Reviewed by Marc Glassman

shawfestival-cabaret-philadelphia-storyCabaret

Peter Hinton, director
Paul Sportelli, musical director
Denise Clarke, choreography
Michael Gianfrancesco, set design
Joe Masteroff, book based on the play “I am a Camera” by John van Druten and
“The Berlin Stories” by Christopher Isherwood
John Kander, music; Fred Ebb, lyrics
Sam Mendes, original co-director w/choreographer Rob Marshall
Starring: Deborah Hay (Sally Bowles), Gray Powell (Cliff Bradshaw), Juan Chioran (Emcee), Benedict Campbell (Herr Schultz), Corrine Koslo (Fraulein Schneider) note: Patty Jamieson substituted for Ms. Kelso in the production reviewed.

The Philadelphia Story

Written by Phillip Barry
Dennis Garnhum, director
William Schmuck, set designer
Starring: Moya O’ Connell (Tracy Lord), Gray Powell (C.K. Dexter Haven), Patrick McManus (Macaulay (Mike) Connor), Thom Marriott (George Kittredge), Sharry Flett (Margaret Lord), Tess Benger (Dinah Lord), Juan Chioran (Seth Lord), Jeff Meadows (Sandy Lord), Ric Reid (Uncle Willie), Fiona Byrne (Liz Imbrie)

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Two of the plays at Shaw’s Festival Theatre are also film classics. What makes Cabaret and The Philadelphia Story still work so successfully on stage—and why did the stories transfer so well to the screen?

One thing these two plays share in common is an iconic female lead. In Cabaret, it’s the wayward Sally Bowles, a singer more in love with the stage than the stage is with her. While Sally has to share the drama in her play with an insidious omniscient Emcee, an idealistic writer and a star-crossed aging romantic pair, The Philadelphia Story is dominated by one figure, Tracy Lord. She’s the “golden girl” as one of her three lovers calls her—a patrician beauty whose looks and intelligence have interfered with her discovering a heart to match her other attributes.

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The back-story of The Philadelphia Story is a famous showbiz tale from the ‘30s. Katharine Hepburn had gone from being an Oscar winning actress to “box-office poison” in a mere six years. Leaving Hollywood under a cloud in 1938, Hepburn engineered her return to stardom with her friend, playwright Phillip Barry.

The duo worked together on the creation of Tracy Lord, who is based in part on another of Barry’s friends, the fun-loving socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott. They made sure to imbue Tracy with some of Hepburn’s famous qualities—beauty and brains—and her perceived drawback: an imperious coldness where matters of the human heart are concerned.

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Hepburn felt that Tracy had to be romanced but just as importantly brought down low by accusations of heartlessness. It’s only by accepting her own fallibilities and those of her family and friends that she finally becomes a complete person, worthy of love and, of course, a happy ending.

When The Philadelphia Story was produced on Broadway in 1939, it proved to be an instant hit. Supported by an ensemble of brilliant then-unknown young actors including Joseph Cotten, Van Heflin and Shirley Booth, the play worked wonderfully well on stage and propelled Hepburn back to Hollywood. The hit film version of The Philadelphia Story saw Cary Grant replace Cotten as Hepburn’s ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven and James Stewart win an Oscar as Macaulay (Mike) Connor, a tough journalist who can’t help falling in love with Tracy Lord. (One can’t imagine that even Heflin could have been better than Stewart).

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Playing Tracy Lord on stage now must be a hard task for any actress; it is so identified with Hepburn. Moya O’Connell proves to be more than up for the challenge. She plays the part with wit and a natural charm. Perhaps because she was battling to reestablish her career, Hepburn imbued Tracy with more gravitas than is necessary. O’Connell interprets her more graciously as a misunderstood woman, who always knew that she had a heart.

Thanks to O’Connell, the Shaw’s version of The Philadelphia Story is more comic than the film. It doesn’t hurt that Moya O’Connell is as beautiful in her own way as was Hepburn. She dominates the stage with her charismatic presence. This is truly a starring role for O’Connell and guarantees the play’s success at Shaw.

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There was one major change made in Donald Ogden Stewart’s Oscar winning adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. The character of Tracy’s supportive brother Sandy is removed in the film. In its place, C.K. Dexter Haven becomes more than the slightly befuddled neighbour invited back for the wedding by Tracy’s little sister Dinah. The film’s “Dext” becomes a true family friend, the one who gets newspaperman Mike Connor and Liz, his girlfriend photographer, invited to Tracy’s impending marriage to the socially stiff George Kittredge. In exchange for their exclusive, publisher Sidney Kidd, a former employer of “Dext,” agrees to drop the publication of a scandalous article on Tracy’s philandering father.

Played by Cary Grant and with all of Sandy’s good deeds added to the role, the film version of C.K. Dexter Haven is a full-fledged character. Unfortunately, in the play, Dext is more peripheral, as is the Shaw’s Gray Powell. Handsome and graceful Powell may be but he lacks Grant’s insouciance and, quite frankly, as interesting a role as that in the film.

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But The Philadelphia Story flies above this script flaw. Thanks to O’Connell and a witty script by Phillip Barry, this is a fine comic tale, nicely realised for the Shaw by director Dennis Garnhum.

Cabaret also boasts a larger-than-life lead, the dramatic if slightly delusional Sally Bowles. Sally is determined to live her life to the fullest and if that means sacrificing lovers for another chance to be on stage, she’s more than capable of doing it. In Christopher Isherwood’s classic Berlin Stories, a somewhat fictionalized account of his life in Germany’s capital as the decadent Weimar republic was replaced by the Nazis, Sally is a romantic figure, an exile like “the writer” Cliff.

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Part of the narrative in Isherwood’s 1930s book, John van Druten’s 1950s dramatic play I Am A Camera and the musical version Cabaret is Sally’s decision to have an abortion. It is a choice that was controversial in the 1930s—and remains so today. Cabaret has a tough set of stories to tell but it is a compelling example of musical theatre because it genuinely engages the audience in an honest depiction of Berlin’s raffish artistic underground at a time of great political change.

And, of course, it features the amazing Ms. Bowles, a charming, exasperating figure who is a true three-dimensional figure. Over the years, the exquisite actress Julie Harris played Sally, in the stage and film versions of I Am A Camera; the young and fragile Jill Haworth starred as her on Broadway in the original production of Cabaret while Judi Dench essayed the same role in England, also in the late ‘60s. Many others have played Sally: Natasha Richardson, Jane Horrocks, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Gershon; even Molly Ringwald offered her version of Sally. But the most acclaimed Sally is Liza Minnelli, who won an Oscar in the 1972 film version of Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse.

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Undaunted by all of those actresses, Deborah Hay offers a fine version of Sally—all nerves, brashness and bravado. She’s spellbinding while performing Sally’s signature song, the titular tune, “Cabaret.”

Hay is not alone in offering skillful moving performances in the current Shaw run of Cabaret. Juan Chioran cuts an impressive figure as the Emcee of the tawdry cabaret, where Sally performs while Benedict Campbell is touching and fitfully comic as Schultz, the aging Jewish grocer in love with Fraulein Schneider.

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But Peter Hinton’s adaptation of Sam Mendes’s contemporary reinterpretation of Cabaret keeps all of the characters, even Sally Bowles, at a distance from the audience. Using an immense staircase as the main set and an elaborately dressed Emcee, wearing formal garb cut on straight angles as their visual statements, this is a production that uses Expressionism to create an unease that deepens into fear when the Nazi presence becomes manifest in the last third of the drama.

Bob Fosse’s acclaimed film version, which starred Minnelli, Joel Grey as the Emcee and Michael York as the “camera eye,” hardly ignored the rise of the Nazis but this production is more relentless politically. That’s understandable; when Fosse made his film, there was neither AIDS, nor 9/11 or Iraq.

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What makes Cabaret wonderful as a show is its combination of ear-catching music and engaging, somewhat political, drama. The inevitable changes that happened in Germany as the Nazis took over gives any production a brilliant dramatic arc. The Shaw’s version of Cabaret offers a slight Kurt Weill inflection to the Kander-Ebb score, fine acting, eye catching visuals and some tough-minded politics. It’s a production well worth seeing.

All images from www.shawfest.com.

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