I can’t remember how many productions of Cabaret I’ve seen over the last decade, but Len Matheo’s version at Miners Alley is by far the clearest, most intelligent and most exciting. The musical, which premiered in 1966 and has been through several incarnations and interpretations since, is based on Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical novel Berlin Stories, about his experiences in that city during the early 1930s, as Hitler was seizing power. In the musical, Isherwood’s stand-in is Clifford Bradshaw, a young American writer. Arriving in Berlin, he wanders into the seedy Kit Kat Klub and encounters all kinds of characters, the most interesting being the androgynous Emcee and Sally Bowles, a flighty, hedonistic English singer.
For years, I’ve been troubled by the dissonance between John Kander and Fred Ebb’s brilliantly catchy and often toe-tapping songs — “Wilkommen,” “Money,” “Don’t Tell Mama” and, of course, “Cabaret” — and the terrible evil we know is growing in the background. This production obliterates any sense of dichotomy. The musical arrangements by Mitch Samu are expressive, subtle and sometimes unexpected, the performances strong, and there’s a jolting difference in tone between the first act and the second, when the shadows we’ve only glimpsed before seem to swarm onto the stage, ready to engulf everything in darkness. The intimacy of the theater helps eliminate the barrier between performers and audience, and actors slither onto the waist-high partition between us, talking, touching, occasionally pulling someone on stage.
In many productions, the scenes at Fräulein Schneider’s boardinghouse, where Clifford and Sally’s storyline unfolds, as well as the touching subplot between their landlady, Fräulein Schneider, and her suitor, the fruit seller Herr Schultz, are far less vivid than the sleazy world of the Kit Kat Klub. But here these scenes are given full weight. Cliff is often played as an all-American kid, an innocent thrust into a decaying and decadent world, but Luke Sorge’s portrayal is deeper and more complex. Lines that are often cut indicating that Clifford is gay or bisexual have been restored (Isherwood himself was gay). Clifford finds out that Sally, played by Adriane Wilson, is pregnant, and he begs her to leave Berlin and come to America with him. Sorge’s rage and despair when she refuses could stem from genuine love. Or from the fact that Clifford’s conflicted desire for a conventional married life has been utterly destroyed. Or both. Sorge makes the character’s ultimately clear-eyed understanding of what’s happening in Berlin believable and quietly heroic.
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Isherwood wrote Sally Bowles as a lost, narcissistic kid, oblivious to what’s going on around her, an untalented singer but an oddly mesmerizing performer. How in hell does an actress evoke all this? Wilson is very beautiful, and as a singer, she owns the stage. When she cuts loose on the song “Cabaret,” her voice filled with defiance, pain, despair and perhaps a trace of affirmation, she blows the roof off. In the dramatic scenes, she’s most effective when silently reacting to others — you can read exactly what Sally’s feeling on her face — and less so when she actually speaks, because the words sometimes sound unmoored and unfelt. Still, the woman’s a stunner.
I liked the dedication and total immersion of the Kit Kat girls and boys, and Tim Fishbaugh as the puppyishly smiling, ignorantly brave Herr Schultz courting Kristen Samu’s stern but ultimately yielding Fräulein Schneider with apples, oranges and — wonder of wonder in those gray times — a pineapple.
And then there’s the Emcee, the role that made stars of Joel Grey and Alan Cumming. I’ve seen some Emcees who were almost supernatural, leering embodiments of evil that hover in the shadows like goblins, watching as others’ lives are destroyed. Jim Walker is quite evidently human. Tall and lithe, prancing and shimmying, delighting in other people’s pain, he rules the Kit Kat Klub with gleeful depravity, taking huge pleasure in his own outrageousness, grabbing breasts, butts and crotches. Watching him, I was irresistibly reminded of the way large segments of the alt-right, America’s incipient fascist movement, pride themselves on their humorous use of irony and have adopted and perverted cartoonish memes such as Pepe the Frog. Walker’s hypnotically loathsome Emcee seems cut from the same cloth: Hey, why would anyone get upset at our salacious antics and racist insults? It’s all just a joke. Isn’t it?
Cabaret, presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through June 25, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com.