Through Sun 11/18
In 1966, when Cabaret, the John Kander, Fred Ebb musical based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera, adapted from the short novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, opened at the Broadhurst Theatre, patrons were thrown off balance when, as they walked down the aisle toward their seats, a large out-of-proportion self-image was reflected back by a convex mirror on stage.
As the musical proceeded, three concepts of Epic Theater, Berthold Brecht’s concept of making the theatrical process become meaningful for the audience, became apparent. The audience was wrapped in alienation, historification and epic.
Alienation is keeping the audience aware that they are in a theater, that this was a staged production. The mirror, the exposed lighting instruments, the lack of realistic scenery, the actors often addressing the observers directly and wearing outlandish makeup that made them less than real, became readily apparent.
Historification concerns the story, in this case, Joe Masteroff’s book for the musical, showing historical concepts in a non-real setting. This was reality, but not necessarily a real story.
Epic: the story is bigger than life and has huge consequences. There is an important message being told. Pay attention and apply the concepts to your life! Yes, that well-describes the uncommon nature of the script and Hal Prince’s unusual staging.
There was no overture. Instead, a drum roll and cymbal crash led into the opening number. “The juxtaposition of dialogue scenes with songs used as exposition and separate cabaret numbers providing social commentary was a novel concept that initially startled the audience, but as they gradually came to understand the difference between the two, they were able to accept the reasoning behind them.”
The story, on the surface, is easy to describe. The setting is 1931 Berlin. Germany is in economic and political turmoil. Adolph Hitler and his Nazis are rising to power. At the seedy, decadent Kit Kat Club, the home to gays, political dissidents and those more interested in having a good time than being concerned about the world around them, we find English cabaret performer, Sally Bowes, an emcee who will set the Epic nature of the story in context, and Cliff Bradshaw, a bi-sexual American who is out to write the great novel, but has writer’s block. The relationship between Cliff and the unpredictable Sally, Cliff’s landlord, Frau Schneider and her beau Herr Schultz, and Ernst, whom Cliff met on the train coming to Berlin, and is a member of the rising Nazi party, become the focal point of the storyline.
The club is a metaphor for the political developments of the country. As the country tumbles into chaos, so does the Kit Kat Club and its clientele.
The original Broadway production became a hit, inspiring numerous subsequent productions, as well as the 1972 film of the same name. Both the original show and the film starred Cleveland-native Joel Grey as the emcee. Both the 1993 London and the Broadway revival starred Alan Cummings. The difference in the Grey and Cummings characterizations of the role spotlights the vast difference between the philosophy and effect of the interpretations.
Joel Grey was asexual, dressed in a tuxedo with rouged cheeks. He was delightful, not giving us a hint of the true horrors of the rise of the Nazi party and what was to come. The aftereffect was left to the audience.
Alan Cummings’ portrayal was highly sexualized, as he wore suspenders around his crotch and red paint on his nipples. Grey delighted, Cummings was decedent, placing a spotlight on the true story of what was to come and what did transpire such as the destruction of the Jewish community, homosexuals, Gypsies, political dissidents and the mentally ill in Germany.
“In the final scene, the Emcee removes his outer clothes to reveal a striped suit of the type worn by internee concentration camps; on it are pinned a pink triangle (denoting homosexual).” This was our clue as to what was to come!
Baldwin Wallace’s Cabaret, under the visionary direction of Victoria Bussert, creative choreography by Gregory Daniels and superlative musical direction of Beth Burrier, goes even further than Cummings’ version of the show. The ending was so riveting that as the lights snapped off, signifying the end of the show, the audience was absolutely silent, except for a number of audible sobs.
It is a shame that the decision was not made to forgo a curtain call and let the audience sit in a minute or two of dark silence, allowing the vivid ending to sink in and become not only a tribute to the six million or more whom the Nazis murdered but the recent hideous Pittsburgh Squirrel Hill synagogue shootings.
In doing this script, the cast of young students was forced to see things they probably hadn’t even thought about — events outside their life timeline such as World War II, Kristallnacht, the rounding-up of Jews and gays, the concentration camps. Without that awareness, however, the entire production, especially the ending, would have rung hollow.
(The show is double cast. The specific performance comments are about the “Cliff Cast” which appeared on opening night.)
Pencil-thin Charlie Ray started out rather mechanically as the Emcee, but as the show progressed Ray’s performance gained natural nuance and his playfulness, while shadowing the “Final Solution,” gained creditability. “If You Could See Her” was nicely developed, leading to appropriate silence rather than laughter at the end of the number. His performance during the last scene was mesmerizing.
Nadina Hassan did her own interpretation of Sally. This was not a Liza Minelli imitation. There was a hard-edged “don’t give a damn attitude” to her black lipsticked persona that might turn some off, but it was consistent throughout and perfectly fit her vocal choices for her powerful rendition of “Cabaret.”
Zach Landes nicely textured the role of Cliff, making him a realistic and likeable character. Too bad he only had a short singing segment in “Perfectly Marvelous” as he displayed a pleasant singing voice.
Forced to use students, not adults, in the mature roles, Bussert made the decision not to “fake it” — no gray hair spray, no wigs, Herr Schultz (Sam Columbus) and Fraulein Schneider (Erin Niebuhr) assumed the roles and after the original awareness that they were twentysomethings playing middle-aged people, the portrayals rang true. Their duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” was delightful, as was Niebuhr’s “So What.”
The Kit Kat Girls and Boys sang and danced well, nicely executing Daniels’ often difficult era-correct moves.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Cabaret is an important epic musical theater script which gets a strong performance at Baldwin Wallace. The ending of this production was one of the most horrifying and effective closing scenes ever performed on stage. The long silence that followed it was a tribute to Bussert and her cast and crew.
Cabaret is scheduled to run through Sun 11/18. For tickets and information call 440-826-2240 or go online to bw.edu/tickets.