Who would have thought Kander and Ebb’s classic musical Cabaret would take on political relevance in the United States in the 21st century? The Secret Theatre‘s rough-glam new production actually plays the show pretty straight. But we don’t need the cast’s explicit call at intermission for anti-Trump activism to see the parallels between the onset of Nazism in the show’s 1930s Berlin setting and the paranoid-nationalist direction of the new administration in Washington. Cabaret speaks for itself, loudly and colorfully, and above all artfully, with a compelling story and some of the greatest Broadway songs of the 1960s.
Staging a lavish musical in the Secret Theatre’s small hall always poses a challenge. Co-directors Hunter Bird and Chloe Treat use every available corner and dimension of the elongated space to accommodate their large cast and the wide-ranging action, from train depot to Cliff’s rented room to immersive-feeling scenes at the iconic Kit Kat Club.
They make a few questionable staging choices in some of the spoken scenes, with actors delivering quiet lines facing upstage, a problem in an unamplified setting. And there are a few unsettling transitions from singing on the Kit Kat Club’s stage with a mic to singing off the stage without one during some of the production numbers.
Even the band members are positioned in opposing corners, making coordination a challenge for musicians. But while, as a sometime music director, I couldn’t help noticing every slight failure of synchronization, band and actors stayed impressively together through the numbers, with all their time changes and other peccadilloes. On the whole, the production is a great success, thanks to a strong cast and ambitious, inventive staging.
Natalie Walker gives us a tightly wound, intensely tragic Sally Bowles, thoroughly conceived and building to a wrenching performance of the title song at the climax of the show. That moment is also the climax of the English cabaret singer’s increasingly desperate denial that her world of bohemian glamour is collapsing around her as the Nazis take power. Cliff (Jesse Weil), the quiet American writer who becomes Sally’s first true love, is a bland character in the first act, and Weil at first doesn’t seem to have much in his arsenal to remedy that. But once he becomes a potential father-to-be, he springs to life grows into a sturdy anti-hero.
Jeff Hathcoat delivers a focused and multidimensional Ernst, the young fascist who befriends Cliff and takes advantage of the American’s penury and good nature for his own poisonous political ends. Sue Lynn Yu as Fräulein Schneider, the spinster boarding-house landlady, and Mark Coffin as Herr Schultz, her Jewish boarder, make the pair’s ill-fated romance more than a subplot, each singing and acting with flawless conviction and skill. As the Emcee, Larry Owens has a force, flashy charisma, and vocal quality reminiscent of a rounder Billy Porter.
Eventually, the dramatic events of the second act send these characters, Hans Castorp-like, into a future uncertain for them personally, though we know it will be grim for the world. Early on, though, the spoken scenes among the younger characters sometimes lack the requisite pace and polish. And there are a few odd costuming choices, including one bad case of blatant and unnecessary anachronism.
Fortunately, the musical numbers, colorfully staged and crisply performed, sweep the small lapses briskly away, starting right off with Yu’s beautiful limning of “So What?” – which has suddenly become my favorite song from the show. Walker’s magnetic, coke-snorting Sally and the gaudy, variously provocative Kit Kat Girls open things up with a brightly staged “Don’t Tell Mama” and a balloon-bobbing “Mein Herr,” the latter a bubbly confection with a hint of menace in the fate of the “herren” – presaging the truly scary end of Act One.
Herr Schultz, like Sally, works hard to maintain his illusion of a benevolent world, romancing Fräulein Schneider with a fruit in “It Couldn’t Please Me More (A Pineapple)” and later, when things start looking grim, insisting to her in a wonderfully touching scene that “governments come and governments go.” When his would-be bride answers later with a softly heart-rending “What Would You Do?” their loss of a last chance at love feels suffocatingly sad.
The themes of tolerance and love persist through the Emcee’s arresting performance of “If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song)” with his ape-faced lover. By the time he emerges in a fabulous gown and insane wig to sing “I Don’t Care Much,” it’s obvious the decadent party of Weimar Berlin is crashing to a close. Sally’s half-crazed, hysterical (not in the funny sense) “Cabaret” is one of the most seething musical-theater numbers I’ve seen in a long time, as she almost literally falls apart on the Kit Kat Club stage.
As Herr Schultz tells the departing Cliff, “Mazel [luck] – that’s what we all need.” True, but insufficient, and certainly not the show’s real moral. Today, just as in the 1960s when Cabaret was written, we have history to remind us, teach us, that acquiescence and trusting in luck may save a careful and fortunate person, but not a civilization or a people. The show speaks to us today just as powerfully and memorably as its timelessly exciting songs do.