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Last May, actress Alexandra Silber cryptically shared her latest casting coup on Twitter.
“I was just offered a dreamy role I literally *never* thought I’d play, with a team and in a city I adore,” Silber wrote. “Allow life to surprise you, friends.”
Saturday night, the dream became reality for Silber and those audience members able to schlepp out to Olney Theatre Center. (OK, so the “city” part of her tweet was not entirely accurate.) There, at a performing arts complex in the far reaches of the Montgomery County suburbs, Silber stepped into the spotlight as Sally Bowles, singing siren of the Kit Kat Club and star of the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret.
Silber may say she never thought she’d play the iconic English dame who serenades a Berlin nightclub at the dawn of Hitler’s reign, but at Olney she sings “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Cabaret,” and “Maybe This Time” like she’s been practicing her renditions of these classics since she was 16.
In addition to applauding Silber, audiences should cheer director Alan Paul, choreographer Katie Spelman, and the whole team at Olney. And kudos to D.C. theater in general for attracting a performer of Silber’s caliber who not only says yes when she gets an offer to perform at our farthest flung Equity venue, but gushes about her luck on Twitter.
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Olney’s Cabaret is a sparkling milestone. And yet in some respects, the production is inferior to the region’s last Cabaret: the 2015 small-scale staging at Signature Theatre. Matthew Gardiner—D.C.’s other 30-something wunderkind musical director—created his immersive Kit Kat Club in a black box. Smash standout Wesley Taylor slunk around on stage in lederhosen as the Emcee and Barrett Wilbert Weed of Mean Girls fame shone as Sally.
My critical subconscious spent Saturday night’s performance cranking out a comparison chart. It’s an unfortunate hazard of the profession, but also a sign that both Gardiner and Paul have served one of the 20th century’s best musicals well. Signature’s Cabaret was intimate, classy, and heartbreaking. Olney’s Cabaret is bigger, broader, and gayer, with Silber, a fantastic band, and a choreographer on the rise.
Once everyone has received a warm “Willkommen” from the Emcee, the opening scene of Cabaret finds writer Clifford Bradshaw training toward Berlin, hoping to hole up in a German attic and crank out the great American novel. A fellow passenger points him toward a boarding house with passable rooms and a nightclub where he can while away time. Off to the Kit Kat Club we go, and soon Sally is calling on the gentleman seated at Table No. 2.
One of Gardiner’s genius moves was casting a Shakespearean actor, Gregory Wooddell, in the role of Cliff, the outsider who falls under Sally’s alluring spell. Gardiner treated the script’s suggestion that Cliff had a previous liaison with one of the Kit Kat Boys as a dalliance and running joke. Paul, however, goes out of his way to put Cliff in the closet. Both approaches can work, but the latter requires an actor who can simultaneously convey a conflicted inner life, sincere affection for Sally, and enough gumption to take on the Nazis. At Olney, Greg Maheu is not up to the task.
Silber easily overpowers the young actor, whose local credits include mostly ensemble roles, and her Sally—with henna-red wigs, vivid smears of eyeshadow and a suitcase full of bustiers—is too much for this milquetoast turtleneck wearer.
Audiences, meanwhile, will love gawking at Silber. She’s played plenty of ingénues, including Sophie in Master Class on Broadway and Guenevere in Shakespeare Theatre’s Camelot, where she teamed up with Paul last year. Clearly, she relishes this unexpected chance to play an old fashioned broad. Silber begins “Maybe This Time,” with a deep, throaty rumble and ends with a sotto voce whisper rather than a soprano belt. It’s gut-wrenching. But Silber also possesses a pure-toned higher range. If she deployed that crystalline voice a bit more in Cabaret, her vocal acrobatics would stand out.
Instrumentalists impress more consistently than the cast. Olney Theatre became an all-union shop a few years ago, boosting the quality of its pit. Music director Christopher Youstra stands before a 10-member ensemble that delivers a big band look and sound with the bonus of strings, harp, accordion, and banjo. A fancy faux proscenium hangs inside the real thing, and Spelman utilizes the steps leading down into the audience for both kicklines and slow, measured descents.
This is a production that celebrates theatrical artifice. Where Signature created a cabaret, Olney does glitter and be gay. The wig budget alone must be towering. Costumes, by Kendra Rai, are strappy and exaggerated. Mason Alexander Park earns his sequins, leather, and furs as the fabulous Emcee who looks and acts like Timothée Chalamet, if Chalamet were the son of Alan Cumming and Taylor Mac.
Paul has good reasons to forego any sense of realism. His final scene is a chilling, contemporary acknowledgement that evil prevails when too many people ignore politics. This is Cabaret as an entertaining morality play rather than a tale of love and denial in 1930s Berlin. What’s so great about Kander and Ebb’s musical is that it works both ways. What’s so great about D.C. theater is that we’ve now seen two great productions of it in five years.
To Oct. 6 at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $42–$84. (301) 924-3400. olneytheatre.org.