BWW Review: CABARET at Olney Theatre Center Keeps Us Gasping
Because Cabaret is a true classic of the American musical stage, it's a safe bet that most of the audience at any contemporary production of Cabaret, including the one which has just opened at the Olney Theatre Center, and most of the readers of this review will have seen the show before and be familiar with it. But for those few who may be unfamiliar with it, a summary: Cabaret follows the adventure of Cliff (Gregory Maheu), a young writer who ventures into Berlin on New Year's Eve, 1931, and is immediately drawn into two worlds. The first is his lodging house, presided over by Fräulein Schneider (Donna Migliacco), an elderly landlady of dubious standards, whose rental demand for Cliff's room quickly wilts in the face of Cliff's financial limits. Among the tenants are Fräulein Kost (Jessica Lauren Ball), a prostitute who seems to have a clientele mainly composed of sailors, and Herr Schultz (Mitchell Hébert), an elderly Jewish fruiterer determinedly optimistic about the existential threat that the rising Nazis pose to him and to his budding romance with Fräulein Schneider. The second world Cliff discovers is the Kit Kat Club, a cabaret in which, from a certain point of view, the entire musical takes place (it's complicated). (If "life is a cabaret, old chum," as the title song informs us, then the concept of life taking place within a cabaret is not much of a stretch.) This environment is presided over by the multilingual and perverse Emcee (Mason Alexander Park), and features a cast of dancing girls and boys, and a star billed as "the toast of Mayfair": British, broke, improvident Sally Bowles (Alexandra Silber). Sally and Cliff will have a romance of a sort before everything is swept away by the Nazi tsunami overtaking Germany.
I've deliberately left out some important plot details subject to change from version to version of the show, even from production to production. The long, long history of the gradual progression of this tale from Christopher Isherwood's collection of short stories about the decline and fall of Weimar Germany between the wars, Goodbye to Berlin (1939), through a stage play, I Am a Camera (1951), a 1966 musical, Cabaret, a movie made of the musical, and two landmark stage revisions of the musical (all three versions are still being separately licensed), is almost too tortuous to contemplate. It's a safe bet that any performance one sees today will draw elements from more than one staging.
The Olney production is no exception. According to the program, it pledges its fealty to the 1998 Roundabout Theatre "co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall," based on the 1993 Sam Mendes revision. Marshall did take some liberties with the Mendes version. But if my own recollection of the Marshall version is correct, director Alan Paul and choreographer Katie Spelman, at the helm of this production, are taking liberties with Roundabout, and reintroducing things Roundabout eliminated. Is all that clear?
Well, let me give a couple of specifics. In the latest iteration, cabaret singer Sally Bowles has reacquired musical talent. Isherwood was clear that she's not a great singer. When the spellbinding singer Liza Minelli in the movie put her imprint on the role, however, that approach necessarily became toast. But then, when Mendes put Natasha Richardson into Sally's silk stockings, Sally's lack of talent was restored as an important element of the characterization. Now, though, in a swing back to the movie, Alexandra Silber's Sally sings a lot like Liza, requiring some plot readjustment.
And then there's the matter of Cliff's sexual orientation. In the first Cabaret, unlike Isherwood, for whom Cliff was a stand-in, Cliff was straight. In Mendes' version he's apparently a closet case. Here, the evidence suggests he's bisexual. What these permutations say about his relationship with Sally necessarily varies in consequence.
Then, moving on from sexual orientation to gender identity, what's happened to the Emcee? Mendes dressed his Emcee (Alan Cumming) in a bare chest and suspenders, coming across as distinctly gay but also distinctly male. Park, however, who has been described as having "a penchant for drag roles," spends every moment onstage in one degree of drag or another, of which the photo above gives a representative view. And indeed, in keeping with that change, the distinction between the chorines (collectively in the program "The Kit Kat Girls") and the choristers (collectively "The Kit Kat Boys") often disappears; frequently one has to look very closely to determine which platoon any dancer belongs to. This Kit Kat Club is trying much harder to cultivate an air of what in the Thirties was taken to be decadence.
So it's not accurate to describe this rendering as simply the Mendes/Marshall version. It is trying to go further. It is trying to punch harder. And I'd have to say that it succeeds. The erotic anger that comes boiling up from this ensemble is hotter than I've seen before. It raises the stakes in the clash between the collective id of the Kit Kat crew and the destructive malice of the Nazis that forms the main backbone of the plot. The Kit Kat performers may be going down, but until they do, they will push all limits and let nothing stop them. They will enjoy their freedom until (as the conclusion makes plain will occur) that freedom is literally gassed out of their bodies.
Olney's Artistic Director Jason Loewth writes of a paradox I've felt: that though, in his words "Cabaret is one of those 'evergreen titles', a classic suitable for just about any moment," nonetheless "somehow this moment feels particularly apt for Kander and Ebb's story of the rise of Nazism, and the people who turned a blind eye as entire populations were victimized and ultimately killed. At this moment, with a new kind of tribalism in vogue, and governments across the globe minting new ways to label some tribes as outcasts ..., this musical takes on more and more complex layers of meaning." Exactly correct. Most of us may not be defying this horrifying turn of world events by embracing performative "decadence," but nonetheless Kit Kat speaks for us and to us.
It is in light of this newfound relevance that we must assess the actions of the characters, most especially Sally. Cliff, who in his naïve project of coming to Berlin to write a novel demonstrated a lack of sophistication, "gets it" by the end, and draws a beating in consequence from Nazi thugs before he leaves. Whatever his state of mind, he's at least morally okay. Sally, on the other hand, refuses to view matters through a political lens when that is the only lens that will render an accurate view. Is she a naif or merely too frightened to look closely for fear of what she might see? Either way, I think Mendes was correct in restoring to Sally the lack of talent Isherwood gave her; hence current director Alan Paul is in error for revising Mendes. Of course it is fun to have songs like Mein Herr and Cabaret performed in bravura fashion by a singer who can belt like Liza (which is a fair tribute to Alexandra Silber), but it is better to show mediocre life choices as the product of mediocrity. Sally should not be choosing to stay in Germany because of her artistic success; she should be staying there because only there can she succeed (for a while at least) at being second-rate. The staging of the conclusion in some versions suggests that Sally will not be exterminated with most of the other Kit Kat performers; I looked in vain for something similar in the somewhat confusing equivalent moments of this rendering. It would have rung true; Sally may be free with her favors, but she does not associate sexual liberty with defiance of authoritarianism the way her fellow-performers implicitly do; rather she canoodles with Nazis indiscriminately. That kind of choice might explain her being spared.
As it is, theatergoers will have to take this production with these choices baked in, but fortunately they leave ample scope for the show to dazzle. From the moment one walks into the Mainstage auditorium, one will be aware of Wilson Chin's imposing set, featuring Cabaret's traditional mirror facing the audience, in this case fan-shaped with an etched-in deco design, in front of which the musicians sit, in a room decked with crystal chandeliers and a staircase that will be illuminated when the dancers arrive leading down from the orchestra podium to the audience, and it is clear we are in for a superbly-presented spectacle. And as soon as the Emcee comes in with a distinctive take on Wilkommen, the grand introduction of the dancers and orchestra, presented with a delivery that frequently lands Park half-a-beat behind the other Emcees we may hear in our mind's ear and shifts the emphases, and changes the lyrics slightly, we know we are set for an experience that will not just be thrilling but distinctive as well.
Owing, I think, to things I've already mentioned, the topicality of the show at this particular moment and the anger I sense just below the eroticism of the show-within-the-show, I found the arrival of the Nazis in the action more shocking than usual. The first reveal of a swastika, though we know exactly when and where it's coming, gave me chills which just got worse with the reprise of Tomorrow Belongs to Me, a patriotic song that turns into a fascistic one. As the story devolved into a nightmare, and the bullies took over, and the swastikas multiplied, I kept gasping. It all feels too close to home.
And keeping us gasping is what Cabaret in all of its incarnations has always been about. Gasping at the opulence, gasping at the decadence, gasping at the heedlessness and the horror. It is intentionally strong stuff, and if it delivers, then it succeeds. And by that yardstick, this version, whatever it may or may not owe to its predecessors, is a smashing success.
Cabaret, book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, directed by Alan Paul, based on the 1998 Broadway production do-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall and directed by Sam Mendes, through October 6, on the Mainstage at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets $42-$84 at https://www.olneytheatre.org/whats-playing or 301.924.3400. Strong sexual themes and situations, violence, cigarette smoking.
Photo Credit: Stan Barouh.