'Cabaret' message urgent in these troubled times

Aaron Krause • Apr 18, 2016 at 8:30 PM

MIAMI, Fla. — One cannot debate the urgency of the musical "Cabaret's" message in today's dangerous, uncertain world.

Just read about the recent Paris nightclub shooting that left more than 100 dead and the bombing in Belgium that killed at least 30. It will make you realize the need to heed "Cabaret's" warning against complacency, apathy and hiding behind an interior "beautiful" world when outside danger looms.

If news of the aforementioned attacks don't set off alarm bells in your head for vigilance, consider an April 11 New York Times article that reported Italy, Britain and Germany are believed to be high on the list of targets for terrorist attacks by the Islamic State.

That "country called Germany," as American novelist Clifford Bradshaw writes in the musical, is the same one in the show where, in Berlin, a decadent nightclub with an eccentric emcee urges you to leave your troubles outside. Everything's "beautiful" and violence-proof inside his seedy establishment, if you believe the master of ceremonies...a character many will remember from Joel Grey's award-winning portrayal of the androgynous, sexy, mysterious character.

The Roundabout Theatre Company is giving people across America the chance to ponder the danger of such thinking in a touring version of the company's 1998 multi-Tony Award winning Broadway revival of this masterful, beloved musical.

The production, which the Roundabout remounted in the Spring of 2014 on Broadway, is playing Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts through this weekend. Then, it heads north to a variety of cities before heading west and back south. The closest venue to Norwalk is Cincinnati's Aronoff Center, where the show will run from May 10 to 22.

In his program notes, Roundabout Artistic Director Todd Haimes writes this production presents "a dark and dazzling vision for the iconic musical, stripping away showbiz sheen and sparkle to reveal an unadorned, visceral core."

Well, that's not entirely true, if this touring version's any indication; yes, the production's dark, but there are plenty of sparkling lights and even a disco ball that make lights rotate around the theater. But does "Cabaret" really need to be 100-percent deathly dark and dreary to drive home its warning? Of course not. As a matter of fact, it shouldn't be.

All those shimmering lights that seem to scream "showbiz" and "sparkle" reinforce the notion that we're closing ourselves off from an outside world where danger lurks who knows where. It suggests we have our "heads in the clouds," inside a "beautiful" (the emcee's word) life filled with dancing, gorgeous girls, music and sensuality.

Notice I wrote "we." "Cabaret" tries to suggest that we're all guilty in one way or another of apathy in the face of mounting threats. We're guilty simply by applauding the emcee for his comments and antics.

Furthermore, in the Roundabout production, we all appear to be attending the night-time entertainment at the seedy cabaret in Berlin called the Kit Kat Klub --- even though we're living in 2016 and the musical's set at the end of the 1920s, when the Nazis were rising to power.

The invisible "Fourth Wall" that, in live theater, separates a play's fictional world from our world, helping to make the actors unaware of the audience, doesn't exist in this production. There's no closed curtain as we enter the theater, a directorial choice designed to draw us into the musical's world.

Before the production even begins, cabaret girls make their way onto the stage, some doing their pre-performance warm-ups, further blurring the illusion of the "Fourth Wall." Before the performance I saw, the "girls" warned us not to take photographs of them or the scenery. Then, drum beats grow to a crescendo, the opening strains to "Wilkomen" play, the emcee peeks through a hole in a door upstage, enters and lures us into the world with his second finger before welcoming us in song to the Kit Kat Klub. Later in the show, any pretense of late 1920s Berlin existing apart from 2016 America is shattered when this strange person descends the stage's steps, comes into the audience and looks around for a lucky (unlucky?) person.

"I smell fear," he says playfully, before plucking a person out of her seat, onto the stage (designed with single, silver threads of drapes, two dark doors and two black, curving staircases by set designer Robert Brill) and into the emcee's arms to dance with him.

Cynthia Onrubia, who recreated Rob Marshall's original choreography for the tour production, consists of slow, sultry dancing at some points, and forceful, in-your-face moves at others.

The cast, for the most part, excels in singing, dancing and acting.

A naughtiness, sensuality and rebelliousness are etched into the faces of the Kit Kat Klub girls, reinforcing the decadence of the night club. The club's a metaphor designed to foreshadow the dangers ahead for Germany.

"Cabaret," a concept musical, one in which the show's metaphor is more important than the narrative, takes place on two levels (set designer Brill's two-level set reinforces this).

On one level is the series of songs inside the Kit Kat Klub, which provides often wry commentary on plot developments, with the Emcee as a kind of one-man Greek Chorus. The Emcee looks down from the physical second level of the stage as the plot progresses outside the Kit Kat Klub. The transition between scenes in the Kit Kat Klub and outside is impressively smooth, with one flowing right into the next, ensuring continuity of action.

Tension increasingly mounts within the Kit Kat Klub and outside until it reaches a boiling point, resulting in a harsh collision of reality between the two.

The story involves the romances of two couples. With the Nazis rule drawing closer, the relationships suffer and the inviting Kit Kat Klub becomes increasingly darker. Still, nobody seems to care, thinking things will work out fine.

The song "So What," expresses the attitude about life adopted by landlady Fraulein Schneider (played as a strong-willed, tough survivor by Shannon Cochran). It comes after she's unable to convince American author Clifford Bradshaw, who's visiting Berlin in search of inspiration for his next novel, to pay her what she charges for a room.

"For the sun will rise and the moon will set, and you'll learn how to settle for what you get, it'll all go on if we're here or not, so who cares, so what," she sings. But the song's lyrics, taken in another context, sum up the attitude of all the characters. They don't seem to care about the increasing danger to citizens such as Jewish businessman Herr Schultz (a charming, naive, optimistic Mark Nelson). Even Schultz seems oblivious to the danger facing him as he forges ahead with his plan to wed Schneider.

"Governments come and governments go," he comments.

Meanwhile, Bradshaw (an at first naive and open minded Lee Aaron Rosen, who later seamlessly transitions into an ever-aware, frustrated man) struggles in his relationship with cabaret artist Sally Bowles (a charming, happy but later palpably frustrated and vulnerable Andrea Goss). Listen to Goss' rendition of the title song, and you'll never think of it in the same way again. In this production, it's not a happy, carefree hummable tune but a downer that might change your outlook on life. Goss' voice drips frustration, defiance and sarcasm as she sings "Cabaret," following an argument with Bradshaw.

As the master of ceremonies, a lipstick-wearing Randy Harrison, clad in suggestive garb like other Kit Kat Klub regulars (the character-fitting costumes were designed by William Ivey Long), finds the sensuality, ambiguity, playfulness and unabashed shamelessness in the character, while also appearing somewhat creepy. He doesn't quite make the character his own, though. On Broadway, in the Roundabout production, Alan Cumming, who won a Tony for his portrayal, beckoned the audience with his finger and Harrison does the same.

The direction by BT McNicholl (the original direction was by Sam Mendes) includes some wise choices. For instance, after Bradshaw is warmly welcomed to Berlin, the emcee and other Kit Kat Klub regulars stand behind him. They say "Welcome to Berlin" in a menacing whisper, foreshadowing the danger that will come with the Nazis' rise to power.

The lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari reinforces intense moments with red lighting, and in the "Money" song, the lights turn green. The combination of darkness and light could suggest the duality of man. One character who seems two-sided is Ernst Ludwig, who at first befriends Bradshaw but later utters the word "Jew" in a hateful tone, revealing himself to be a Nazi. Ned Noyes has a charming smile at first in the role, but it fades into a cold expression toward the end.

"Cabaret," uses catchy, irresistible songs (sung clearly and with convincing emotion by the award-winning, well-known team of John Kander and Fred Ebb) and a tempting setting to distract us from the musical's core: the danger of apathy in the face of mounting threats. Take the song "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," an anthem designed to drum up patriotism toward the Nazis. It's sung first by a boy, his recorded sweet soprano sweeping throughout the theater before building into a song sung defiantly and proudly by several cast members.

Enjoy the songs and empathize with characters such as Clifford Bradshaw, Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. But keep "Cabaret's" cautionary message in your conscious.

One needs to in today's unpredictable, scary world.

For information about the tour's dates, times and locations, visit cabaretmusical.com.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Aaron Krause is a theater critic and former staff writer for the Reflector. Read more of his work at www.krausesconstructivecriticism.com.

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