Come to This Cabaret
The Theatre Group's version of Cabaret is heavily influenced by Sam Mendes, the celebrated English director who revived the musical in New York a few years ago to a chorus of critical praise. That run still continues. It places more emphasis on the seedy viciousness of the milieu than either the 1951 play (I Am a Camera, based on Christopher Isherwood's stories of his life in Berlin during the early 1930s), or the 1966 musical that eventually became a hit movie starring Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli.
The decadence we witness at the Kit Kat Klub has been drained of sensuality. Though John Kander's marvelous songs retain their toe-tapping appeal (and are wonderfully played by a seven-person band), they're presented by a group of chorines who look as if they've either been smacked around a lot or are in the terminal stages of alcohol and drug addiction. We see bruises, sullen faces, torn stockings, black underwear against slack, pasty skin. The choreography, which is terrific, involves a lot of kicking, thrusting and squatting. Nicholas Sugar, who choreographed, plays the Emcee as the epicene, barely human spirit of the Weimar Republic. He prances, poses, mimes buggery and other sex acts, grins like a demented clown and grabs for any crotch within reach, male or female. This terrifying figure often escapes the Kit Kat Klub to hover at the edges of events taking place elsewhere. Sugar embodies the role with such relish that he holds the entire production together.
Director Steven Tangedal has staged the play so that the audience is positioned as the clientele of the Kit Kat Klub; a few tables are within the sphere of the action. It's guilt by association, but the crowd on the night I attended seemed, for the most part, unaware of any dark undertones. They were chatty and celebratory. The ladies sitting behind me found several scenes cute. There were some gasps and tut-tuts at particularly graphic gestures or when the Emcee bared his swastika-adorned bottom, but it seemed to be the nakedness rather than the swastika that shocked. People laughed when the chorines goose-stepped, and they seemed to miss the implications in Sugar's savagely funny dance with a flirtatious gorilla -- at least until the script spelled it out for them: She's a Jew. So it was probably appropriate that the ending pretty much hit the audience over the head with some intense Holocaust symbolism, an unpleasant reminder of what eventually happened not only to Germany's Jews and gypsies, but to people like the Emcee.
The cabaret scenes fill the small theater with pulsating sound and emotion, and the nasty aftertaste left in your mouth is intentional, but the script, by Joe Masteroff, is less strong. Cabaret details two love affairs: the infatuation of a young American with the English chanteuse Sally Bowles, and the sunset affection that blooms between landlady Fräulein Schneider and a middle-aged Jewish greengrocer. The dialogue in these scenes seems perfunctory, and some of the characters two-dimensional. Jim Miller acquits himself honorably as the low-key young American, but he's something of a stock character -- the innocent (despite one prolonged homosexual kiss) young American abroad, who falls in love with a lost and decadent European girl and tries to save her by bringing her home to mother. There's even the regulation face slap when he realizes that Sally has aborted the baby he hopes is his. (Isherwood, of course, had little sexual interest in the real Sally Bowles.) We've met the doomed Jewish greengrocer before, too, though he certainly had his real-life German counterparts. He's reminiscent of the elderly Jew on Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools who insisted on returning to Germany in 1931 because he felt himself more German than Jewish. "What are they going to do?" he asked. "Kill all of us?"
The production also features some less-than-convincing performances. Jodi Brinkman's Sally Bowles is very strong when she's performing at the Kit Kat Klub, where her larger-than-life gestures fit the situation. Brinkman knows when to make her numbers genuinely moving and when to make them repellent; she gives a strong rendition of the title song that substitutes rage for the kind of tuneful bravery we associate with Liza Minnelli. But in the intimate scenes with the American, Brinkman's performance is far too broad, and she employs a farcical English accent. (It must be said that most of the German accents were hugely distracting as well.) There are many ways of seeing Sally Bowles. Isherwood's original was a self-destructive and extraordinarily ignorant nineteen-year-old, a seductress who managed to be by turns plain and beautiful and who had the dirty hands of a little girl. Minnelli played her as a gamine. Brinkman's Sally is hardened and older. The trouble with this interpretation is that the character's narcissism and blindness, which could be forgiven in someone inexperienced, make her seem either utterly callous or thick as a brick. No one knows what happened to the real Sally Bowles, and no one's likely to worry too much about the fate of this one.
Deborah Persoff brings grace to the character of Fräulein Schneider, but she's a little stagey, and she never quite convinces as a middle-aged German landlady. Though she's not really a singer, she gives such a full and gutsy performance of Schneider's Brechtian laments that she makes them work. She also forces us to take a long look at the much-reviled image of the good German. How can she, powerless and penniless, deal with Nazism other than by keeping her head down, she asks -- and there's no possible answer. In a world of shaky accents and roles that don't quite fit their actors, Joey Wishnia as gentle, loving Herr Schultz has a huge advantage. He looks and sounds like the character he's supposed to be. It's Wishnia who creates the evening's few and much-needed moments of genuine warmth.
Cabaret is well staged and well lit, and it's energetically performed. In all, it's one hell of an achievement for an independent theater company.
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