“Cabaret” shows the rise of fascism in pre-World War II Berlin as it impacts its characters through vignettes of biting, performance satire. The seedy Kit Kat Klub is the common thread throughout. Characters weave in and out of its doors, seeking solace and companionship. As the plot breaks down and fascism takes hold, the change becomes apparent as the characters make rash decisions in love and friendship, ultimately informing the course of their lives.
…stunning acting moments…See this show.
The plot centers around Sally Bowles, the toast of the club and woman about town. She falls in love with author Cliff Bradshaw, a novice in love and, as it turns out, writing. Cliff has just made fast friends with Ernst Ludwig, a German smuggler, aboard the train to Berlin. Ludwig offers Cliff a cut of his racket and Cliff tentatively agrees. Following Ludwig’s advice, Cliff takes up residence at a boarding house run by the no nonsense proprietress, Fraulein Schneider. Cliff meets Sally Bowles at the Kit Kat Klub and begrudgingly becomes roommates with her when she admits she has nowhere to go after she has just been fired from the club.
The linear plot of “Cabaret” is undercut by numbers performed by the Master of Ceremonies of the club and supported by other club dancers. These numbers provide commentary on the plot and force the audience to recognize the current of unease constantly at play. The climax of Act One arrives after Jewish grocer, Herr Schultz, eventually proposes to Fraulein Schneider and they throw an engagement party at the boarding house. The party is attended by Ernst Ludwig, who is revealed to be sporting a Nazi armband after removing his overcoat. Cliff confronts Ludwig, much to Sally’s chagrin, and Ludwig and various party goers (excepting Sally, Cliff, Schultz, and Schneider) sing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a Nazi-inspired marching tune as the curtain falls.
This musical is ultimately a tragedy. Sally Bowles, who once sparkled with mischief and an infectious devil-may-care attitude is reduced to a shell of her former self. Cliff has left Berlin altogether and the MC appears in concentration camp uniform before being forced through a door, accompanied by Herr Schultz and two of the Kit Kat Klub performers.
“Cabaret” pulls no punches and Reston Community Players does not shy away from the darkest aspects of the musical. The most notable parts of the production are the stunning acting moments, of which there are many. It is no small feat to make the role of the MC your own. The MC is the very soul of the pre-WWII Germany’s Jazz Age and the human personification of the Kit Kat Klub. Evan Zimmerman delivers with ease. His MC is a cruel guardian, lording his power over the audience with sweeping gestures and a litany of double-entendres. He reminds us that this is his house, not ours—we chose to see this show and we have to see it through. Zimmerman turns the tables on us with lightening speed, vacillating from hilarity to stunned silences. He leaves us wringing our hands in distress, wondering how he can be plucked from his spot as narrator and forced to become one with his own storytelling. Zimmerman’s MC’s loss of control is palpable and masterfully delivered at the end of Act Two. Clearly he did the work, and his MC is as thoughtful as he is crude. This is not an easy story to tell and Zimmerman drives the show to its brutal end with expertise.
If the MC is our id, Sally Bowles must be our ego. Sally is all head and minimal heart, though she would like us to believe otherwise. She is a lady of profound mystery and represents the allure of Berlin for someone like Cliff Bradshaw, so wide-eyed and green. Claire Jeffrey as Sally and Joshua Nettinga as Cliff are a marvelous pair. Jeffrey exhibits a quiet strength, displayed in full during moments of conflict with Cliff and her Kit Kat Club manager and lover, Max. Sally is a woman in constant conflict. She has been burned before but could be convinced to try her luck again. Jeffrey’s “Maybe This Time” is stunning and Jeffrey uses it as an acting moment as much as a vocal showcase. This is a song about decisions and Jeffrey thoughtfully constructs a landmine for herself. She knows what carnage is possible. Is it worth it? Jeffrey’s Sally thinks it is.
Nettinga’s Cliff is sympathetic and idealistic. Initially, we think he’s just fallen in with the wrong crowd. It soon becomes apparent just how bad he is at reading people. We are with Cliff as he invites Sally into his apartment. We’re with him as he swears he’ll be there for her whether or not she chooses to follow through with her pregnancy. We are with him right up until he strikes her across the face. It’s not quite believable that a man over six feet can strike a woman under 5’7″ without knocking her to the ground, but both Nettinga and Jeffrey follow through on the acting moment and make it work. It would be nice to feel a bit of a turning point here. Sally is not a stranger to physical violence, primarily from men, and Jeffrey does a good job of snuffing out Sally’s light after Cliff strikes her. We very nearly feel her fall back into familiar patterns of trauma. It is well done. Is Cliff usually violent? He gets into a fight outside the Kit Kat Klub, but has he hit a woman before? This is a discussion the director must have with the actor. This moment may need to be fleshed out more. Fortunately, Nettinga is so technically apt that he pulls us back in despite the muddled staging.
As part of the excellent supporting cast, there is the second doomed couple—Dave Moretti as Herr Schultz and Liz Weber as Fraulein Schneider. Both actors possess real chops. They are as technically specific as they are nuanced. Weber’s “So What” is the perfect window into how Schneider’s mind works and he is hilariously blunt. Moretti juxtaposes Schultz’s eccentricity with his tenderness. We truly fear for him when we find out what is to come and find ourselves wringing our hands. Yet again, when he states that he has survived it all before—what could be different this time? The answer comes in the form of Ernst Ludwig, our first whiff of political and social disquiet. Matthew Scarborough’s Ludwig is frightening. He is the personification of societal politeness fine-tuned to mask one’s real intentions— the perfect politician. Ludwig represents his parties interests, nothing more. He is perfectly quaffed, appearing in a tailored suit, overcoat and his trademark wide grin. Too bad the overcoat hides a Nazi arm band.
The set is effective, relying mainly on pieces brought from the wings to convey Sally’s apartment and the train station. Set designer Maggie Modig did an excellent job of conveying where we are in space in time with minimal shifting of scenery, the largest pieces of furniture in Sally’s apartment, and aboard the train to and from Berlin. A big shout out goes to the hair and makeup team headed by Mary Frances Dini. There are many hair changes in the show and her running crew was right on it! The most successful wig moment in “Cabaret” is Sally’s flaming red hair, which was an excellent choice.
It is difficult to stress how pertinent a show like “Cabaret” is at this moment in American history. The ending is foreshadowed throughout Act One, but we are distracted by singing and dancing, stories of love and lust, and the sheer tawdriness of it all. The face of the MC, once an inviting smile, becomes a leer. The Kit Kat Klub, once an oasis, becomes a safe haven. Playwright Joe Masteroff and musical geniuses Kander and Ebb show us a group of people unaware of the growing shadows of fascism creeping under their doorways—at the door of the Kit Kat Klub and the door of Cliff and Sally’s apartment. Fleeting moments, once unimportant, become harbingers of death. A sung soliloquy or moment of emotional discovery are shoved to the back of our brains as we grasp hands with the cast and struggle to make sense of a world on a sheer precipice.
See this show. Today, as fascism rears it’s ugly head once again, it’s imperative that we do not forget why we see live theater—why we act, sing, dance, and choose to open our hearts and give in to the flood of emotion that comes with it. We are lucky enough to have the privilege to put on shows that challenge the way we see ourselves, and each other. “Cabaret” holds up a mirror and we must look into it.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
“Cabaret” runs through May 14, 2023 at Reston Community Center’s Center Stage, Hunters Woods Village Center, 2310 Colts Neck Road, VA 20191. For tickets and more information, visit online.