Breaking out of the box

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Book by Richard Lawton and Douglas Hicton, music and lyrics by Douglas Hicton
Directed by David Leidholdt
Musical direction by Brett Kristofferson
Midtown International Theatre Festival
New 42nd Street Theatre
348 W. 42nd Street, 2nd floor (279-4200)
Equity showcase (Festival closes Aug. 5; call for schedule)
Review by Doug DeVita

With an almost relentless beat, Douglas Hicton’s creepy/cheery score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (based on the 1919 German Expressionist silent film classic) reveals a new musical that has the potential to be a real crowd-pleaser when, and if, it can fix its not insurmountable problems.

Set in the German town of Holstenwall one October before the Great War, the musical Caligari depicts a tale of terror, murder, romance, and psychological ambiguity as the enigmatic Dr. Caligari travels the countryside displaying his sinister experiment in somnambulism, the murderous Cesare.

In David Leidholdt’s uneven production at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the work’s strengths and weaknesses were thrown into sharp bas-relief. At present, the musical is slightly out of focus in its plotting, and could use some further work on its characters' development and their relationships to each other and the world(s) they inhabit. But on the plus side, Richard Lawton’s and Hicton’s stage adaptation also captures the horror, dreaminess, and ambiguity of the original film, and both Hicton’s pulsating score and Lawton’s book offer some juicy temptations, and challenges, for ambitious singing actors.

Leidholdt’s visual imagery (inspired not only by the original film — a staple in film and art school lecture halls — but apparently also by Harold Prince’s original production of Sweeney Todd and Bob Fosse’s film version of Cabaret) along with his firm command of musical staging, was stylistically appropriate and firmly supported the strongest aspects of the material. Where he faltered was in setting a consistent tone. Thus the production veered wildly from genuinely thrilling theatricality to campy silent-movie melodramatics, in the process vitiating any sense of tension or credibility. In addition, the production was HUGE! James E. Maroneks crazily angled set pieces were unwieldy and forced some rather awkward transitions from scene to scene. Robin I. Shanes black-and-white period costumes were impressive, and Hideaki Tsutsuis simple lighting worked well enough, given the exigencies of a rep plot for a multi-play festival using the same theatre. (In all fairness, the whole production looked and felt as if it had been truncated to fit the cramped performance space.)

The performances were also uneven, with the best work coming from ensemble members Michael Klimzak, Kaia Monroe, Matthew Nelson, and Jason Roseberry. As Caligari, the strong-voiced Darrel Blackburn had some powerful moments but unfortunately gave in to overwrought melodramatic conventions at crucial moments, as did the equally talented Gregg Kapp as the lovelorn hero, Francis. Natalie Salins displayed a lovely soprano and not much else as Jane (granted, she had the least-developed role), and Edward M. Barker was just too dandy for words as Cesare (the intensely compelling Oliver Burg)’s first victim, the foppish Alan.

With the passing of Richard Lawton, it remains to be seen if the work needed to realize the potential of this Caligari will be undertaken. Perhaps another book-writer can be brought in to refine Mr. Lawton’s vision. As the astounding recent success of the vastly inferior Jekyll and Hyde proved, musical thrillers are fun and good ones are rare. It would be a shame if this musical did not get every chance it deserves.

(Also featuring Rebecca Burton, Don Juhlin, Britta King, Robert Lehrer, Angela Shultz.

Box Score:

Book: 1 Music: 2 Lyrics: 2

Directing: 1

Musical Direction: 2

Acting: 1

Sets: 1

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 1