Cabaret | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Cabaret 75Visually, Cabaret is a feast.

Cabaret 500

“Wilkommen, Bienvenu, Welcome,” the mysterious Emcee (Nathan Lee Graham) greets us as we enter the Kit Kat Club, a dive bar under a bridge in 1929-30 Berlin. Here a ragtag (but extremely talented) group of performers entertain their customers and themselves with music, dancing, vats of booze and sex of all varieties. One night, an innocent abroad, expatriate writer (of one novel and blocked on his second) wanders in. He is Clifford Bradshaw (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), a sexually ambivalent but repressed young man seeking escape and trying to find his muse again.

Will that be the star of the show, Sally Bowles (Liz Pearce)? Sally is British and judging from her accent, now living far beneath her original station, rather like Deborah Kerr gone to the dark side. She has exchanged the strictures of her old society for one where she can live for pleasure. And she does, at least until those pesky Nazis show up, but that comes later. For now, she talks Cliff into sharing his room at Fräulein Schneider’s (Mary Gordon Murray) cheap boarding house with her. Even though the rent is low, neither can afford it, but the sweetly philosophical Schneider gives them shelter. Her philosophy of life is summed up in the song she sings in this scene, “So What,” and while it may be a bit passive, the message of survival through acceptance has seen her through so far. Later, however, her attitude will do irreparable harm to herself and the man she loves. This heartfelt performance is a lovely moment in the show, one of my favorites.

So, with Cliff and Sally living more or less happily in sin, we turn back to the compelling but profoundly odd (and sometimes creepy) Emcee. Graham is astonishingly good in this role. He is black, which adds layers of resonance to the character and, at the same time, doesn’t matter at all. His race and ambiguous sexuality make him targets for the Nazis, but like Sally, he seemingly prefers to dance on the edge of the abyss rather than think about politics. The difference between them is that he appears to have knowledge of things yet to happen, while she does not. He prowls the set, and on one memorable occasion, the audience aisles, in an array of costumes; one of which, a Moroccan get-up, I was told was his own choice because he figured Algerians would frequent the club. Most of them were created by Angela Wendt, and what a grand job she has done for all the characters.

Visually, Cabaret is a feast. If you’re a regular at the Rep, you’ll recognize aspects of the set from previous productions, and the artistic director rightly points to the fact that everything we were seeing was designed and constructed in-house. Michael Schweikardt imagined a set that encompasses the club, the rooming house, and a fruit stand owned by the ill-fated Jewish shopkeeper and suitor of Fräulein Schneider, Herr Schultz (Michael Marotta). Except for Schultz’ shop, the other settings blend together gradually until the final moments of the show when we see a hodgepodge of club and living quarters, of those partying in the face of collapse and of Nazis wreaking mayhem on unsuspecting lives. It is enormously unsettling, and John Lasiter’s lights are important to our reactions, as is the sound by Acme Sound Partners.

Speaking of sound, I did think the body mics were turned up a bit high in Act I during Sally’s solos and a number performed by Cliff, but it was perfectly modulated in Act II, which I also found more compelling, but of course, one would. This is where the effects of the rising tide of political unrest shows the danger these people are in. When Cliff and Fräulein Schneider warn Herr Schultz, he is baffled. “How could the Germans be a threat to me? I am German.” But there are Germans, and there are Germans. Two others we meet who will end up supporting the National Socialists are gentlemanly smuggler Ernst Ludwig (Blake Ellis) who gives Cliff a chance to make some money by working for him, and Fräulein Kost (Dana Winkle) a prostitute whose income from her sailors pay her rent. Trying to hide their comings and goings from her landlady makes for some funny moments, but it becomes clear that Ludwig and Kost are among the bad guys.

And there is humor in Cabaret, but it is mainly a dark show. People reach for happiness, or at least contentment, but it is snatched away, sometimes by their own ill-advised actions (Sally) or by forces beyond their control (Fräulein Schneider). For some time, Berlin has been the setting of one long party where anything goes, and social disorder sets up an atmosphere ripe for a martinet like Hitler to rise to power. This show has the rare ability to keep us discomfited and entertained at the same time. Director/choreographer (and reinterpreter of Bob Fosse), Marcia Milgrom Dodge, has done a remarkable job of managing the mood, as well as the movement. The score is one of the best of the 20th century with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The music supervisor, music director and orchestrator, Christy Crowl, has done masterful work with it. (And I’m just tickled pink that the director, lead music director and the entire band except for associate music director Henry Palkes, are all women.)

Cliff wants to take the now-pregnant Sally back to America, but she refuses to go. She wants to return to the club instead, and though Cliff begs her not to, she does. He takes a beating from the owner (Timothy Hughes) and another thug, while she almost literally steps over him to deliver “Cabaret,” first hesitantly, then gradually building to full voice, defiant and determined to live it up until she dies from dissipation. “When I go, I’m gonna go like Elsie,” she crows in a lyric about a woman who did just that. So, is Sally self destructive or just stupid? A little of both, I’d say.

The company is also extraordinary. One of the best and most evocative parts of the show is the famous chorus line of men and women all dressed in tuxedo drag who perform a kick line that gradually turns into a goose step to open Act II. I had chills, as I did at the irony of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” (no, it doesn’t), the crassness of “Sitting Pretty/The Money Song” and the soon-to-be dashed hope in “Don’t Go/Maybe This Time.” The Emcee has one of his finest turns when he performs “If You Could See Her” with a dancing gorilla, and with impeccable timing, delivers the killer closing line to the song.

Cabaret is the child of many parents. In addition to the composers cited above, the show’s genesis is a play by John Van Druten titled I Am a Camera. Van Druten based his work on “The Berlin Stories,” by Christopher Isherwood who, in turn, based the character of Cliff on himself. Milgrom Dodge says, as other directors have since the show was first produced as a musical in 1966, that the time in which Cabaret is set reflects “our time,” no matter what era we live in. And they were right, all of them, which is the real tragedy at the heart of Cabaret. The other potential tragedy, although a more personal one certainly, will come if we don’t see Webster University graduate Nathan Lee Graham accepting a Tony Award for a Broadway show sooner rather than later. He is a true force of nature. | Andrea Braun

Cabaret is at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Sept. 11-Oct. 6, 2013. You may visit repstl.org for information.

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