Two words come to mind when describing the experience of the musical “Cabaret.”
The intertwining of both at a high level is what launches the show to its whiz bam effect. Both of these artistic vibes come through in high amounts in the national tour of Broadway’s Tony Award-winning revival making its DC appearance at the Kennedy Center, for a limited 3-week run.
This edition of the iconic shock fest certainly ups the ante is much more hard hitting than the original by Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics), making its Broadway debut in the tumultuous, social-bending year of 1966. From the original direction of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, this latest incarnation captures all of the sexual experimentation, fleshy decadence and depravity, and the sense of desperation felt in the background story of life in Berlin, Germany, as the Nazis gain prominence.
Ah the Cabaret, that den of everything you want-anytime. A little like Amazon, before its time. The place is the Kit Kat Club, the hottest spot in Berlin, Headlining the dissolute talent at the club is the Emcee (Jon Peterson), who performs a mesmerizing combination of body contortions and gender shifting with impeccable timing. The opening wowza number “Willkomen” is a wry invitation to the tawdry world that he revels in. Earlier “Cabaret” versions will portray the Emcee as sinister and mysterious. Here there is little to the imagination—in what he is wearing or his intentions. Every scene is a come-on–to the dancers, the audience, or silently walking through another scene as a sort of dark angel taking in the denizen’s plight. Slight of build, his movement and interaction onstage were exceptional.
…captures all of the sexual experimentation, fleshy decadence and depravity, and the sense of desperation felt in the background story of life in Berlin, Germany…
His cohorts onstage, here equally balanced by Kit Kat Girls and Guys, some who double as musicians in the talented and just as scantily clad band, all finely delivered by music director Robert Cookman, with fine orchestrations by Michael Gibson.
Interestingly, the Girls are all brunettes costumed in bland colors of beige and grey—not a bright color or sparkle among them. Bereft of facial expression, they reflect nameless raunchy sexuality with a dingy look of dirty sex depicted. We know how the gals make ends meet. In the songs “Two Ladies” and “Money” the Kit Kat cast delivers their hilariously unique bent on sexuality and the brutal reality of postwar Berlin, respectively.
Into and around this swirl of turpitude are two subplots. The first is naïve American writer Clifford (Benjamin Eakeley) who is thrust into the fray, and the mesmerizing chantelle Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin) who fascinates him with her openness, charm and day-by-day carefree attitude. The classic cutesy phone scene has been changed to one direct call from Sally to Clifford—things happen quickly in Berlin.
Eakeley is engaging as the eager visitor indulging in all that this new world has to offer—from wild nightlife to easy shady money, courtesy of all that Berlin has to offer. He lends a smooth baritone and also becomes increasingly aware of the seriousness of the heightening political turmoil and the dangers his ignorant friends are about to face.
Larkin as the iconic Sally Bowles carries herself with star energy and an expressive smile and is appropriately teasing as she meets Clifford. In “Don’t Tell Mama,” she offhandedly explains her situation with good technical range but is a little out of touch with the thematic grittiness of this production. Her “‘Cabaret” is less a microcosm of her life than pointing out her recent misfortunes and limits the emotional ceiling. A period instead of an exclamation point.
The other superbly contrasting subplot is the autumn romance of world-weary landlord Fräulein Schneider and kindly fruit store owner Herr Schultz. Veterans Mary Gordon Murray and Scott Robertson bring all the human qualities glossed over at our downtown S&M central–experience, perspective, and humanity, and wonderful life resonance in their songs. In “So What” and “What Would You Do” Murray wears the tiredness of life as she sees it changing for the worse in front of her. Their duet on “It Couldn’t Please Me More (A Pineapple)” and “Married” are especially touching. She is alone and pragmatic, he is deluded, hoping that what he sees in Germany is only a passing fad. His Jewish roots make him a target and he is forced to leave, echoed by the haunting nationalistic Nazi anthem of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” As in “West Side Story,” one knows a happy ending is not around the corner.
Other characters, especially the cunning Ernst Ludwig (Patrick Vaill) and down on her luck Fräulein Kost (Alison Ewing) take the nationalistic bait as they embrace identity division and hate as their society crumbles.
The tight, noir motif of the show reflects that turbulent era and sweaty despair of the denizens of S&M central, including William Ivey Long’s unkempt blowsy Kit Kat costumes and the burlesque lighting that point out the stark despair of the numbers and a centerpiece lit frame of lights above the stage, angled to show something just not right about this dystopian world. Choreographer Cynthia Onrubia has incorporated quick stage movements in and out of the darkness and light onstage, helping to create a ghostly view. Their dance is a passionate drive of forcefulness, not a dainty step among them.
Director BT Mc Nicholl has crafted a lean, mean ‘cheeky’ scene that admittedly doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Yet even in our hard-to-shock culture, this touring production of “Cabaret” stands out.
Entertaining and unsettling. As Sally sadly says, realizing her end with Clifford: “Strange how it always works out this way. Even this time….” we see the notes of quiet anguish amidst the revelry.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: Mature themes and movement.
“Cabaret” plays from July 11 to August 16, 2017, at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4400 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them here.