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“Cabaret” begins and ends with the Emcee, who is the heart and soul of this mélange of decadence, innocence, naivete, credulity, and ultimately, evil. That is, if a being as debauched as this Emcee, played brilliantly by Jon Peterson, can be said to have a heart and soul. He is practically feral as he prances and purrs, slithers and slinks, and lures us into the tawdry little world of the Kit Kat Klub. Even his hands, raised high above his head, are snares that tempt and entice as he draws us in with the electrifying “Willkommen.” What order of creature is he? What exactly is he offering us? And when we enter his world, how will we be changed when we leave?
This is the stunning Tony Award-winning Roundabout Theatre Company production of “Cabaret,” now at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, originally directed on Broadway by Sam Mendes, and co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall. The original book is by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Chrisopher Isherwood. Tour direction is by BT McNicholl, with choreography recreated by Cynthia Onrubia.
Everything in this production fascinates, from the Emcee, to the set, to the orchestra, to the singers and dancers, and the players whose lives are forever changed by the people and events in 1930 in Berlin. The entire production drips decadence and a feeling of being caught in a world spiraling further and further out of control, while people go about living their lives as if they could go on as always, with a monster lurking in the corner and slithering around the edges.
The Kit Kat Klub musicians, all first-rate and led by Robert Cookman, are dressed in ripped stockings, black underwear, suspenders and not much else. The band rips it at the beginning of Act Two in “Entr’ Acte.” They are set up on a platform above the stage where they look down on the action below. The Emcee prowls around up there, hovering over the lives of Sally and Cliff, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, and the others. Spiral staircases on either side allow movement from one level to the other. The orchestra is framed by an off-kilter square of lights, some of which are dead, so that when the lights flash, there seems to be something missing, something not quite right. The whole stage is also framed in these lights, giving a sense of containment, of being caught inside of …what?
Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley), a down-at-the-heels American novelist, arrives by train in Berlin where he meets Ernst Ludwig (Patrick Vaill), a young German entrepreneur (read: smuggler) on the make who sweeps him into the rooming house of Fraulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray) and the underbelly of life in Berlin at the Kit Kat Klub, where he meets the English chanteuse, Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin).
Mr. Eakeley’s Cliff is an earnest young man, wanting to broaden his horizons so he can write his new novel, and he thinks Berlin will be just the place for that. He becomes romantically involved with Sally, although he also has an eye for Bobby. As an outsider, he begins to see what is happening in Germany with the rise of Fascism. We see him struggle with his own internal demons about his writing and his sexuality, as well as his awakening horror at the rise of the Nazis, as he attempts to get the others to open their eyes and see what is going on around them.
Leigh Ann Larkin presents us with a Sally who will not, who absolutely refuses, to see past her green fingernails and desire to be a star, darling. Her belief that she is a sultry temptress that leaves men panting in her wake, is at first amusing. Eventually, however, her brashness and cavalier attitude toward life, love, and the troubling events around her – “Politics, what does that have to do with us?” – tarnishes Sally's luster and she devolves into pathos, sprawled with her platinum hair in strings around her face, drinking gin. In her frenetic rendition of the title song “Cabaret,” we are left wondering if she really believes what she is singing, or if she is doubting her own bravado.
Mary Gordon Murray brings her considerable talents to her role as Fraulein Schneider, an older spinster who has learned to make do with what life presents to her. As she sings “So What” to Cliff, she lets us know that she once had dreams and visions and money, and now knows that it was all a chimera, and you must “settle for what you get.” Ms. Gordon Murray is superb as the pragmatic, old fashioned and somewhat prudish Schneider. Witness her disgust with her boarder, Fraulein Kost (Alison Ewing) who brings sailors home in order to afford the rent. As her friendship with Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson), the Jewish purveyor of exotic fruits and vegetables, develops into romance, she gradually opens up to the possibility of “more.” They are charming to watch, and in “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” as he hands her a pineapple, we see their hope that they might have a life together unfold. However, during this lovely scene, the Kit Kat Klub girls are brandishing illuminated pineapples on the platform above, doing their bumps and grinds. And is that the Emcee over in the corner?
The rest of the cast are definitely up to the task. Patrick Vaill as Ernst and Alison Ewing as Fraulein Kost, in particular, are an important element in the unfolding of the story. The company of Kit Kat Klub girls and boys are terrific dancers and acrobats, and quite compelling in their oozy, sleazy sexuality.
The songs and story in “Cabaret” are as timely today as they were 50 years ago when it was first produced. The troubling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” sung by Fraulein Kost with her accordion, and then by the company, is a portent of what was to come in Germany. Let us hope it is not a portent of what is to come today in our difficult political climate in America, where some seem to be seeing “gorillas” in mosques as well as synagogues.
“Cabaret” is a raunchy, cautionary political play that is rousing, bawdy, entertaining, and chilling. This production is a brilliant one, and you can see it until Sunday at the beautiful Shea’s Performing Arts Center in downtown Buffalo.
Wed Apr 26th → Sun Apr 30th
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