The New York Musical Theatre Festival provides a wonderful opportunity for emerging playwrights and actors to display their talents to a degree that wouldn’t normally be possible, providing the financial backing necessary to deliver a fully formed artistic vision. It’s a great opportunity for audiences, too; with tickets going at only $25 — a quarter of the standard cost for a New York City show — you get a lot of bang for your entertainment buck.
One of this year’s 30 selections is a wry and cheeky punk cabaret fairy tale, sans fairies, (except Tyrone) blending the dark themes prevalent in the un-Disneyfied tales of the old Brothers Grimm with the slightly hedonistic, delightfully brash, vamped up and very ironic flair of modern cabaret acts like Amanda Palmer’s The Dresden Dolls. This is a place where happy endings are by no means guaranteed, so you best make the most of what time you have.
The main story revolves around a kind and beautiful lass who is accidentally gambled away to a fierce lion by her kind and loving father in exchange for the rare and wondrous bird the lion keeps in his possession — a bird intended to be a father’s gift to his favorite child. As is the case in these tales, everything isn’t always what it seems. With the coming of night, the lion is revealed to be a handsome prince who has been cursed by the evil hag, Helga. Though they fall deeply in love, it isn’t enough to break the spell, and when the lass’s rowdy conjoined sisters decide to marry, things only get worse.
The night’s MC, Veronique (Haley Selmon), is a dark ringer for Mae West in sight and sound and the show’s standout performer. Her tongue-in-cheek demeanor and firm grasp of first-year French brought the biggest rounds of applause all night, and she earned every bit of it. Looking like a licorice dream in black and red curls and a burlesque bodice, she’s the one member of the cast not doing at least double duty in the ensemble. She’s needed just where she is to move the show through its paces.
Other highlights include ensemble player Alessandra Veganek, who earns the biggest laughs on the night with her plodding, plotting, ungainly and ungodly Russian-accented, narcissistic interpretation of the evil witch Helga, and puppet designer Tyler Brown’s masterful dragon creation — one of the most visually arresting pieces of costume design I’ve seen in a long time. The cast makes the most of their tiny stage, the inventive choreography making great use of and filling in every corner of the rather limited space.
Admittedly, the show has moments of disjointed fugue. The main story is set aside from time to time while the cast performs little palette cleansers, a short ballet sequence and a couple of miniature morality plays. While these are the most kooky and colorful portions in the program, they also create a feeling of disjointedness. I was almost sad to return to the regularly scheduled story after a wonderful bit called “La Mort de Poulet” played out to its inevitable conclusion.
The show also suffers somewhat from identity confusion, which I suppose one could argue is the part that makes it a cabaret experience. The show begins like a Kander and Ebb musical with its Fosse-inspired dance moves and minimalist costuming, but shifts through phases where it more closely resembles Sondheim or a 1960s Doo-Wop show or a Beat poetry slam. Heck, it even shifts briefly into the realm of a neon-wrapped 1980 workout video. It’s a grab bag of a performance, and you never know what might pop up next. However, if the mp3-player-on-shuffle vibe is what you’re looking for in a musical, this is definitely the show for you.
One thing that came across during the performance was the importance of audience interaction, even if that interaction is just in the form of applause. The cast moved swiftly from spoken portions to song and back without any kind of pause that usually signals to the audience, “you should clap now.” That lack of pause meant that if there had been applause it would have trampled over the following lines, but to me it just left an odd feeling in the room. It wasn’t quite an elephant in the room, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had an effect on the actors’ performances. Acknowledgement is an important element of live theater; it lets the cast know that we see them and like what they’re doing. It bolsters their performances and injects energy into the room. The deathly quiet blanketing the crowd for most of the show made for awkward transitional moments, and perhaps even a couple of hesitations among the actors who may have been wondering if they should take the moment or just get on with it. I would encourage the director and cast to work out a few of those beats after the musical numbers’ closing bars to let the audience decompress and clap a bit before plunging back into the story.
On the technical side, I noticed a small issue with the sound mixing. The three-piece band was a great accompaniment to the rest of the show, but their sound often carried over the actors’ voices and I missed several lines that I believe were intended to be funny. I’m sure it’s a difficult task to mix for such a small space, but it’s worth the work when the payoff in laughs is as great as it is in this particular show. The script was really clever and well thought out, so I’d want to hear everything that was said. But that just didn’t happen.
The imagination that went into Le Cabaret Grimm is undoubtedly bigger and more complex than the venue permitted. The audience is left to imagine the warped landscapes of the Crimson Lake or La Luna, and I can only guess how sweeping and gorgeous the whole production could be with stronger backing and a bigger design budget. The potential is massive. Nevertheless, it was an interesting and unusual night at the theater, and the cast and crew certainly made the best out of what they had. I wouldn’t begrudge the creators the chance to make it even bigger and better in the future, but for now it’s a creative and clever romp that dares to dream big on a budget.
Photos courtesy John Capo Public Relations
Le Cabaret Grimm
The 45th Street Theatre Mainstage
354 West 45th Street
Friday, July 27 at 11 p.m.
Saturday, July 28 at 7 p.m.
Saturday, July 28 at 10 p.m.