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A Coarse, Cacophonous, Compelling 'Cabaret' In New Haven

The newish New Haven small-theater ensemble The Harpers is doing “Cabaret” with a bare-minimum (and half-dressed) nine-person cast. The actors double as the band, playing piano, violin, melodica, a small trap drum, cymbals, washboard, trombone and a slew of kazoos and ukuleles.

It’s a rasping hoot of a show, deconstructing sacred musical theater values and crassly dramatizing the breakdown of society and government. This scrappy, low-rent production takes “Cabaret” to the streets.

There are many deliberately off-key and out-of-step moments. Some songs are shouted rather than sung. The result can be coarse, abrasive and a little bit brilliant.

This is all happening in Lyric Hall, a beautifully renovated 50-seat theater space in the back end of an imposing white building on Whalley Avenue in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. A century ago, as the West Rock Theater, the venue offered silent movies and vaudeville acts. Since reopening as Lyric Hall in 2010, it has been used for concerts, cabaret revues, and an array of theater shows, from the local history-based troupe A Broken Umbrella to the out-of-town try-out of “Long Time Gone,” a theatrical tribute to Bob Dylan.

The Harpers has recently been designated the resident theater company at Lyric Hall. The company’s mission statement states that it makes “music theater at the intersection of fine and folk art,” that is “risk-taking, community-driven and socially conscious,” using “a do-it-yourself ethic rooted in the intimacy of oral tradition.”

The Harpers’ brash version of “Cabaret” is certainly all those things.

I’ve always thought that the best productions of “Cabaret” are the seediest, seamiest ones. I remember the national tour of the 1993 revival visiting Connecticut numerous times on tour and actually improving as the cast went from Equity to non-Equity and the sets went from sleek to cheap. I’ve seen terrific “Cabaret” productions in college dorm basements or in actual nightclubs.

The reason is obvious: “Cabaret,” when done right, is a musical about the world falling apart, and people creeping around in the darkness. A naive young American, Cliff Bradshaw from Harrisburg, Pa., travels to Berlin in order to write a novel. In rapid succession he meets a well-to-do smuggler named Ernst Ludwig, a stern landlady named Fraulein Schneider and, most importantly, a vivacious and self-destructive cabaret singer named Sally Bowles. He also reconnects with a former lover, Bobby. He witnesses the rise of the Nazi party and the persecution of his friends and neighbors.

Director Sam Plattus has found a good-natured, upstanding-American-male piano-player (Nate Houran, who’s studied at the National Theater Institute in Waterford) to be Cliff, an austere silken-voiced violinist (New York-based performer Elena Adcock) to be Fraulein Schneider, and accomplished local actors Jeremy Funke (who’ll be starring as Hamlet outdoors in Guilford this summer) and Raphael Massie (an Elm Shakespeare Company regular who played Peter in “Romeo and Juliet” at Hartford Stage in 2016) to handle the more mature roles of the smuggler Ernst and the fruit vendor Herr Schultz.

Everyone else in the cast looks edgy, sleep-deprived and dangerous. The most volatile among them is Jay Eddy as the Sally Bowles. Eddy, who also served as music director and choreographer for this “Cabaret,” makes Sally a wild-eyed, unhinged cipher of a cabaret singer. Her croons become yowls, and when she’s not singing she’s blaring through a trombone. Eddy’s aggressive approach to the material is understood, and echoed, by a frantic chorus of singing, dancing, uke-strumming denizens of the show’s central location, the Kit Kat Club. Zach Fontanez, a multi-instrumentalist in scraggly beard and lingerie who takes on small roles and anchors most of the musical numbers, exemplifies the creative problem-solving and blast-through-it attitude of this compelling, cacophonous “Cabaret.”

Most of the actors take on multiple roles. So do the set pieces and props. When the show’s hero, Cliff sits down at the “typewriter,” he’s playing the piano. A notebook of sheet music on the piano doubles for Cliff’s copy of “Mein Kampf.”

Though some of the treasured Kander/Ebb songs are sung fairly straight, most are meted out in an unmelodious manner that might best be appreciated by fans of Tom Waits, Nick Cave or James Chance.

There are such audacious choices being made throughout this show — casting a perky blonde woman, Sammi Katz, as the typically dour and fake-grinned Emcee, for example — that each audience member will likely find things that they like and dislike in equal, extreme measures.

But the details, and individual tastes, don’t matter here. Chaos is a hard thing to pull off. The Harpers’ “Cabaret” is a coarse, caterwauling social satire about a deteriorating society. I hope it finds the up-for-anything audience it deserves.

CABARET presented by The Harpers, continues through July 15 at Lyric Hall, 827 Whalley Ave., New Haven. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 3 p.m.; Tickets are $30. harperstheater.org.

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