A Sparsely Populated Berlin for Cabaret

United StatesUnited States Kander and Ebb, Cabaret: Soloists, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati, 19.10.2013 (RDA)

With their Broadway show Cabaret, Fred Ebb (lyrics), John Kander (music), and Joe Masteroff (book) brought to life a unique concept musical in which two plot lines run concurrently on parallel tracks until they fatefully intersect.

Cabaret tells the story of Sally Bowles on her journey from small-town England through the seediest corners of the Berlin of the early 1930’s, and on to the brink of doomsday. A secondary yarn—told in counterpoint with the naughty acts that appear on stage of the title—is that of Clifford, an aspiring American writer, in search of both his literary and sexual identity.

The harsh reality of 1930’s Berlin, as the National Socialist Party rises to power, provides the backdrop, as told through the blunt ditties sung by Sally, the Kit Kat Club performers,  and the joint’s sexually-ambiguous emcee, who is also its sometime co-owner and manager. Transvestites, whores, pimps, Nazis, English and American ex-pats form the cast of characters, all dancing as fast as they can on the edge of an abyss.

The music by John Kander, full of Broadway razzmatazz, honky-tonk harmonies and a decidedly period flavor is redolent of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, Mahagonny and Happy End.  The title song—an anthem that proposes we live for today and to hell with tomorrow—recurs throughout the show, and the last time with a high dose of angst. Songs such as “Don’t Tell Mama,” “If You Could See Her…” and “Willkommen,” and at least a dozen others (some not in the original score) follow in quick and often bleak succession, often underpinned with toe-tapping rhythms and haunting melodies.

Cabaret is a tragi-comic musical guaranteed to give one a jolt of toxic recognition even at the cost of spoiling the dinner just consumed before the theater. Its songs, written in 1966, evoke a time when not all was well here at home—a time and place to which we hope never to return.

In the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park production, the balance between the stories of Sally and Clifford, and that of Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz—both tales surrounded by the story’s bleak racist humor against Jews and gays and anyone other than racially-pure Germans—is not quite there yet. On opening night, there was a tentative, low-voltage quality to the proceedings that blurred the emotional peaks and flattened the moments in which the ensemble should cut loose. Hopefully, the very able cast will have a chance to settle into the Marx Theatre stage. Its tricky thrust configuration is not made any easier by a multi-level set that forces the actors to play some crucial scenes too far upstage. The dancers barely keep from colliding with each other.

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge choreographs well and pulls off the dance routines with flair, even though she’s working with a relatively small cast. In a cast of approximately seventeen, all but five principals do multiple duty, working very hard—but with intermittently good results. The scenes at the Kit-Kat Club give the impression of a joint badly in need of paying customers, given that there are just four girls and six guys in the chorus of singing/dancing waiters-sailors-customers—a sparsely populated Berlin.

In the case of the crucially important role of the Emcee, the show sports its worst case of miscasting. Nathan Lee Graham delivers a performance long on self-indulgent histrionics but short on magnetism. And, would someone please coach him in the proper pronunciation of the multi-lingual lyrics?

Sally Bowles and Clifford, as played with cool aloofness by Liz Pearce and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, create little electricity in their scenes together. Both are good singers and deliver their songs with emotion, but they need to inject some of that intensity into their one-on-one time.In the supporting roles of Herr Schultz and Frau Schneider, Michael Marotta and Mary Gordon Murray achieve many lovely and poignant moments, bringing sophisticated humor and gravitas to their assignments.

The six-piece orchestra sounds terrific and looks wonderful, with three female players and three males in drag playing up a storm throughout the musical’s two acts. Overall, this Cabaret is worth coming to—rather than “sitting alone in your room” as the title song admonishes—but it needs to raise the emotional bar.

Rafael de Acha

This review appeared in a slightly different form on www.theatrereviews.com


Leave a Comment