An animated cartoon by German humorist Walter Moers that's causing a fair amount of international controversy shows Hitler sitting on the toilet in his bunker as the Allies move in, grumbling that the war isn't fun anymore, no one's listening to him, and it's all Churchill's fault. Later, wherever he turns -- as he looks into the mirror or slides into a bathtub full of suds -- he sees a horde of rubber duckies wearing Hitler mustaches mocking him in song: "Adolf, you old Nazi pig, don't you see it's time to surrender?"
I find the cartoon funny, but an awful lot of people don't: How can Moers make fun of the architect of the Holocaust? I'm guessing these people are also troubled by The Producers, with its hilarious and show-stopping "Springtime for Hitler."
Since I've no objection to either of these works, I'm not sure myself why Cabaret, a musical created in 1966 and based on Christopher Isherwood's stories of Berlin in the '30s, bothers me -- but I find that it does. Perhaps it's the disjunction between the toe-tapping music and the horror of the approaching cataclysm, though this jarring disjunction is precisely the point. Perhaps it's because the musical seems to make a connection between the homosexuality at the Kit Kat Klub and fascism, a connection common in some virulently homophobic literature (which also denies that gay people were killed in concentration camps). Perhaps it's less the show itself than the uncomprehending response of some members of the audience ("That was fun," I heard a woman say to her husband as I left). Or perhaps I've been oversensitized by my summer trip to Slovakia, during which I sought out every scrap of information I could find on my refugee father, who died when I was four. I also sat in a pleasant Bratislava apartment with my 78-year-old cousin, Lucka, and her 80-year-old friend, Margaret, who served us Nescafé and vanilla ice cream. The setting was exactly what you'd expect: dark wooden furniture, lace-edged doilies, sepia photographs. The conversation was pleasant and polite. But I could feel the strength of the bond between these two women, best friends, who shared books and music and met for coffee every week. They were both widows. They had both survived Auschwitz.
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Presented by Town Hall Arts Center through October 22, 303-794-2787, www.townhallartscenter.com
Earlier, I had spent several evenings mining Lucka's memories, writing down every detail she could remember about our family, communicating in a mix of her broken English and my fractured German, waving our hands around, consulting the dictionary and laughing a lot. She was voluble and expressive, happy to talk about our Austrian grandfather and his two St. Bernards, Hedy and Cesar; her childhood years above her parents' little shop; the small, all-Jewish school she went to; the thrill she felt on her first visit to Budapest -- even though she was fleeing Nazi persecution -- where she, a country girl, danced with young men and experienced her first opera. She talked about how she and her mother -- my aunt Ida -- had been betrayed by a woman in the house where they were hiding. But every time she reached the point where they arrived at Auschwitz, she stopped. She was tired. It was late. "We'll finish tomorrow." And finally, as my visit was coming to an end and there was no escaping some kind of resolution, she said, "Then it was finished. We were in Auschwitz, and you've read all about that."
I had, and I still do. Book after book, hardening myself against an emotional response. When I got home I bought a new history of Auschwitz -- or at least one I hadn't read before -- but the thing had come too close. I had to stop reading after twenty pages.
That bond between Lucka and Margaret was their shared understanding, and the fact that it never needed to be spoken of.
Cabaret is centered on a very young English chanteuse by the name of Sally Bowles, who sings in a seedy Berlin nightclub called the Kit Kat Klub. Although most of the songs -- by John Kander and Fred Ebb -- are bouncily irresistible, they're also debauched, with an unsettling undertone of menace. The central figure is the sexually ambiguous, apparently all-powerful Emcee, played at Littleton Town Hall by Nick Sugar, who also choreographs and directs. Sugar might have been born to play this role. He makes the character a mocking, sexually ravenous omnivore -- boys, girls, men, women, it's all the same to him -- with an undertone of sadism and an overlay of irony. The Kit Kat dancers are pale and ravaged, writhing kids undone by violence and drugs.
Sally Bowles meets up with an aspiring American novelist -- the usual innocent abroad -- called Clifford Bradshaw, and inveigles her way into the cheap room he rents from a Fräulein Schneider. Sally's a waif and a naif, ignorant of politics, greedily self-absorbed, and Clifford finds her fascinating. The two of them enjoy the delicious decadence of Weimar Germany together, but eventually his growing awareness of evil and danger and her self-destructive willfulness doom the relationship.
All of this is underscored by the middle-aged romance between Fräulein Schneider and the Jewish fruiterer Herr Schultz. John Arp gives him a touching, anxious-empathetic smile, and Barb Reeves, who also played Fräulein Schneider for Boulder's Dinner Theatre, offers a gentle, empathetic performance. Scott McLean is a thoughtful, sympathetic Clifford, and Mary McGroary has a striking presence and perhaps the best voice in the show as the whore, Fräulein Kost.
The weak spot in the cast is Melinda Dickson's Sally Bowles. I rather liked her in her first song, "Don't Tell Mama," where she revealed a daffy, tousled quality that I thought would make for an intriguing Sally. Her delivery of the big numbers -- "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret" -- is forceful, if unsubtle. But though she doesn't lack innate talent, Dickson seems untrained. None of the character's emotions is fully plumbed; no physical movement is taken to completion. Words fly out of her mouth as if they haven't had time to pass through her mind. True, Sally's a fluff-head, but on stage even a fluff-head needs a clear outline.
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In this production, the Emcee lurks on the outskirts of most of the action, as if he were orchestrating not only the musical numbers in the Klub, but the chaos outside as well. He's obviously a symbolic figure, and Sugar makes him almost inhuman at times: a grinning, ghoulish gnome. But the actor also takes pains to show him as small and ultimately powerless. You can't tell if he's decided to go along with the Nazi regime simply to save his own skin or because it resonates with the viciousness inside him. Is the swastika on his ass a gesture of allegiance or defiance? Just when does he come to understand that people like himself are in as much danger as people like Herr Schultz?
There's a number in Cabaret that always clenches my stomach: The Emcee dances with a gorilla while singing what sounds like a sweet song about tolerating differences. It's comic. The audience laughs. At the end, he explains that the gorilla is a Jew, and the audience realizes just what they've been laughing at. It's a valid trick by the show's creators. But knowing how Jews were caricatured in the run-up to the Holocaust -- and, for that matter, how American blacks were depicted in racist cartoons -- I find the laughter almost intolerable.
I don't think this Cabaret would have bothered me as much as it did if Sugar's production weren't such a depth charge, powered both by his own performance and by the kick-ass music of Donna Debreceni and her band. Sugar starred in Cabaret for the Theatre Group five years ago; he was excellent then, too, but this production feels tighter, more together and more savage.
On my way home, I listen to friends praising the production and try to sort out what I feel about having that monstrous thing that filled my childhood vision evoked again. I can hear Sugar's voice jouncing through my mind during the hour-long ride: "Wilkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!" But he really doesn't need to bid me to "Bleibe, reste, stay." A part of me has never left.