When Cabaret premiered on Broadway in 1966, audiences didn’t quite know what to make of Kander and Ebb’s deceptive condemnation of the genocide, antisemitism and depravity Christopher Isherwood witnessed in 1931 Berlin. The Nazi party was just beginning to gain traction, but the rise of such a vicious, imperialist, ridiculously stolid ideology remains inexplicable to many of us. Isherwood was kicked out of college and moved to Berlin to pursue his vocation as a writer, moving into a squalid flat, and making the acquaintance of the notoriously hedonistic and cavalier chanteuse, Sally Bowles. Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, explore the collapse of erudition, culture and humanity, and provided the inspiration for Kander and Ebb’s skewed, sparse, yet complex musical of solipsism and profound loss of innocence.
Clifford Bradshaw (Isherwood’s stand-in) arrives in Germany, renting a cheap room from the sweet (if cynical) Fraulein Schneider. Not long afterword he visits the notorious Kit Kat Klub, hosted by the leering, campy, somewhat diabolical Emcee, where the songs celebrate debauchery and materialism. He meets the waifish, dolled-up Sally Bowles, who performs at the Kit Kat. She’s all about the glamorous, shameless party life, and she takes Clifford along for the ride. Meanwhile, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz fall in love, Sally gets pregnant, and Nazism begins to take hold. Clifford starts smuggling money to help pay the bills.
You could write volumes about the Sally Bowles, one of the theatre’s most enduring and endearing characters. She’s charming, even when she’s being irresponsible or disingenuous. She’s spivvy, and reckless, utterly devoted to pleasure and joie de vivre, and considering how bleak the world can be, quite sympathetic. Cabaret is virtually soaked in irony, and when she sings the famous title song, it nearly becomes a tirade: “Start by admitting from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay…” Sally belts it out, declaring that when she dies, she’ll be blissed out on pills, liquor and sex. This is what makes Fred Ebb and John Kander so intoxicating. They mix biting, sardonic wit with a viable version of the truth. They’re bleak but brilliant. It makes complete sense that people would submerge themselves in distraction, especially when civilization is crashing, but the results are horrific. Sally is all of us, just craving a break from the pervasive ugliness of life. We love her because life hasn’t made her ugly, but wonder if her cocoon has ruined her.
Lately productions of Cabaret have run to the heavy-handed, and it’s a shame, considering that the original text handles this volatile, disturbing subject matter with meticulous grace. I’ve seen several versions that don’t seem to trust the script, as if we don’t grasp the insidious, devastating threat of the Nazi Regime and it’s disciples. Cabaret works because it doesn’t amplify the volcanic. It gives us just enough to reach us, and let the overwhelming take over, without pushing.
The Brick Road Theatre production of Cabaret (directed by Jeremy Dumont) is rich, vivid, and exquisite. Dumonts choreography is fresh and poised, sparkling with humor and precision. Amy Poe’s costumes are understated, evocative and effective. Cabaret’s tone of menace and mirth, despondency and optimism comes through beautifully in the performances of this diligent, dedicated cast. This is one of the best productions of Cabaret I’ve seen. Stand outs include Janelle Lutz (Sally Bowles) who beguiles without gobbling the scenery, Sara Shelby-Martin (Fraulein Schneider) whose world-weariness (“So What?”) will leave you inconsolable and heartbroken, and Billy Betsill (Cliff Bradshaw) who undergoes a sea-change as the show’s narrator.
The Brick Road Theatre presents Cabaret (composed by Fred Ebb and Kander, book by Joe Masteroff) playing June 23rd-July 2nd, 2017. Courtyard Theatre, 1509 H Avenue, Plano, Texas 75074. 972-467-7519. www.brickroadtheatre.org