‘Cabaret Noir’ at Happenstance Theater at Baltimore Theatre Project

Femme fatales and fedoras, trench coats and torch songs, intrigue and suspense… such is the tagline for Happenstance Theater’s Cabaret Noir, and it offers a tantalizing glimpse of what lies in store for viewers at Baltimore Theatre Project.

Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Sabrina Selma Mandell. Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater.
Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Gwen Grastorf, and Sabrina Selma Mandell. Photo by Margaret Hart Photography.

Cabaret Noir is the fifth cabaret put on by Happenstance Theater. However, this year marks a departure from tradition. The past four cabarets drew their inspiration from the Victorian era, particularly the art of Edward Gorey, and Gothic sensibilities. This year, Happenstance has brought their cabaret into the twentieth century with a new theme: Film Noir.

A term used to describe a broad array of films from the 1930s and 40s, Film Noir is perhaps best characterized by its’ jaded characters, thrilling and mysterious plots, and a scintillating combination of crime and romance.

Cabaret Noir is made up of a series of brief, mostly comic vignettes that parody and pay homage to these familiar characteristics. The six Happenstance players move seamlessly in and out of dozens of roles, from serving girls to sirens, movie stars to mobsters, and showing a versatility that had me convinced at times that there were more performers hiding in the wings, all cleverly disguised as one another.

Mark Jaster does grizzled well and goofy better in Cabaret Noir. As the mysterious stranger, he has a positively intimidating stare that can’t help but inspire giggles in the audience. And as the hardboiled detective, one of the most familiar Noir character types, his drive and intensity borders on mania in a positively riotous interrogation scene. But it’s in “Lonely at the Top” that he combines that menace with comedy perfectly, serenading us as a gangster.

Sabrina Mandell is a force of nature, both onstage and off. She plays anything and everything, from a newspaper boy to a typist to a literal gust of wind. Offstage, she’s the Artistic co-Director and responsible for the many, many gorgeous vintage costumes.

Gwen Grastorf sings a darkly comic rendition of “Falling in Love Again,” and she and Sarah Olmsted Thomas had the audience in hysterics as they faced off as competing femme fatales, their conflict eventually culminating in a delightfully absurd barroom brawl.

Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon. Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater.
Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon. Photo by Margaret Hart Photography.

Alex Vernon, who also designed the shadow and newspaper puppets, stood out as the jumper in the audience adored series of vignettes about a thwarted ledge jumper.

Karen Hansen, aka Shorty McHansen, has the most stable role to play as the cabaret’s chief musician. But there’s no rest for the wicked, and Shorty switches instruments as often as the rest of the ensemble switches costumes and characters.

Continuing in the tradition of Film Noir, Cabaret Noir has a number of vignettes featuring song and dance, with the music either arranged or composed by Karen Hansen. Hansen’s arrangement of “Gloomy Sunday,” which features the entire ensemble, was a personal favorite, capturing the melancholy of some Film Noir. Sarah Olmsted Thomas’ rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame” is another highlight, embodying the torch songs of old. And her performance with Alex Vernon of “Love Me or Leave Me” had the audience in stitches.

A few of the vignettes take a more subtle approach, seemingly more intent on honoring Film Noir than poking fun at it. And while these segments are absolutely lovely – “Danse Noir Macabre” is as chilling as the title implies – they are on occasion a jarring departure from the overtly comic scenes that came before. The result on Thursday was that they occasionally made me wonder if I had missed the joke somewhere. But these vignettes were filled with solid performances of well-crafted material.

The lighting at Baltimore Theatre Project is somewhat sparse, and the dressing of the set even more so. However, under the direction of Lighting Designer Kris Thompson, they’ve adapted that sparseness to create a wonderful, chiaroscuro infused environment; one that’s gloomy, vaguely sinister, and wholly reminiscent of early black-and-white Film Noir. There’s even a fog machine. And on those occasions where stronger or more direct light is called for, they’ve implemented hand held lamps to great effect, both visually and comically.

The performers of Happenstance Theater know their craft through and through. And if there were any doubt of their familiarity with Film Noir, they’ve listed some of the inspirations and references which make up the show, providing in turn a fabulous list of movies, music, and books to explore later.

Cabaret Noir is a fantastic show, both for lovers of Film Noir and those new to the genre. Don’t miss this new iteration of Happenstance Theater’s beloved cabarets.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The cast of 'Cabaret Noir.' Photo by Margaret Hart Photography.
The cast of ‘Cabaret Noir.’ Photo by Margaret Hart Photography.

Cabaret Noir plays through November 15, 2015 at Happenstance Theater, performing at Baltimore Theatre Project – 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, M. Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office an hour before the performance.



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