The Parchman Hour and Cabaret make fine companions. 

The Parchman Hour is a musical without a band. Stomping feet and pounding chests provide rhythm. Accompanying music is vocalized but minus the cloying slickness of modern acapella. The numbers range from folk songs and spirituals to prison work. Even Pigmeat Markham's "Here Comes the Judge," puts in a cameo. Combined with the odd Bible verse and occasional "yo mama" joke, they help tell the story of America's freedom riders. In 1961, young activists were dubbed radicals and race baiters for protesting segregation on integrated bus rides through the Jim Crow South. While imprisoned in Mississippi's infamous Parchman Farm penitentiary, the riders, whose ranks included organizer and activist Stokely Carmichael and future U.S. Congressman John Lewis, created a kind of variety show to entertain themselves, and help stay on mission.

The Parchman Hour is theater as documentary, mixing video projection and movement with music and a script compiled from public record. Tightly directed by Dennis Whitehead-Darling, with choreography by Emma Crystal, Hattiloo's production is absolutely alive, and more than occasionally shocking. Every scene cuts to the quick of heroism and sacrifice, challenging viewers to shake off their own complacency.

The Parchman Hour: Songs And Stories of the '61 Freedom Riders runs at Hattiloo Theatre through June 2nd.

When there's no light, you've got to make your own. The Parchman Hour reminds us of the dark and needy places humor and song come from, and how these things sustain and galvanize spirits in common cause. Kander & Ebb's more conventional, but no less disturbing musical Cabaret touches on similar themes, minus the heroism. Cabaret shows three snapshots of Germany during Hitler's rise to power: a sentimental Berlin, a decadent Berlin, and the Berlin where Nazis multiply and metastasize. The first pictures win hearts and other parts before the last picture comes into focus.

We experience these pictures through the eyes of Cliff (Donald Sutton), a writer visiting Weimar Germany, looking for inspiration. The young American gets more than he bargained for when he comes into the orbit of British expatriate and club singer Sally Bowles.

As Bowles, Whitney Branan lets her voice go ugly, slinging sound like a hammer. It's the perfect tool for a character who flourishes inside disaster because she's more Mother Courage than meets the eye.

click to enlarge Whitney Branan
  • Whitney Branan

Though sometimes incomprehensible as he spits out too many words too fast in a thick German accent, Nathan McHenry's intentions are never unclear. As the emcee, he welcomes the audience like a good horror host, and ushers them back and forth across Cabaret's intersecting storylines, on a journey all the way to hell. It's an impressive, athletic performance, but it's Playhouse stalwart Kim Sanders who emerges from the chorus to deliver Cabaret's crushing blow. She leads the cast through "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," an infectious, inspirational number that begins so sweetly, and ends with the earth shifting hard on its axis. From nowhere so many Nazis emerge. Only they don't really come from nowhere; they were there all along.

It's so easy to fall for Sally's spiel about the short distance from cradle to tomb, and carpe diem, and all that. "Come to the Cabaret," she belts like a carnival barker, pitching all the attractions. Only Elsie, the former Chelsea flatmate Bowles valorizes in the musical's title song, didn't win a prize by dying blissfully ignorant.

I don't always know why we go to the theater anymore. I don't think it's to serve any of the old civic functions, but maybe it is sometimes. It's certainly not for any kind of meaningful moral instruction or else all those productions of A Christmas Carol would have fixed us by now. But if Hamlet's right and plays really are conscience catchers, many playgoers will see themselves inside the Kit Kat Club when the show's grimy, accusatory lights come up over the audience. That's the kind of Cabaret this is. But if it doesn't move them to do more than renew their season subscriptions, we'd might as well start celebrating. Right this way, your table's waiting.

Cabaret runs at Playhouse on the Square through May 26th.

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