By John Dwyer
There are very few 50-year-old shows that not only have gotten better with age, but also become more important and relevant than before. “Cabaret,” which continues this weekend at Delaware Valley University theater in Doylestown as part of the Bucks County Center for the Performing Arts (BCCPA) series, is that rare animal.
It premiered in 1966 and won all the awards for Best Musical — the Tony, NY Drama Critics Circle and the Outer Critics Circle. That trifecta occurred again in 1998 for Best Musical Revival (along with earning a Drama Desk) for a much differently staged version that also had script revisions. The reworked script was the effort of Sam Mendes, who directed it at the Donmar Warehouse in 1993 in London where it was a hit
The story focuses on American Clifford Bradshaw, a young novelist, who comes to Berlin to write. He hopes to be inspired and somehow write something significant and wonderful. He has hardly any money, and gets referred to Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house by Ernst Ludwig, a German he meets on the train. Ernst agrees to take English lessons from Cliff and invites him out on the town and they go to The Kit Kat Klub, where he meets Sally Bowles, who is the risqué headliner there who paints her fingernails green. The Emcee of The Kit Kat Klub is a sexy man with a painted face, shirtless with suspenders — a hot gay male version of Marlene Dietrich. Cliff not only enjoys the Kit Kat Klub, but somehow finds himself with Sally as his roommate. Bowles and her decadent ways can be persuasive. A subplot is Fraulein Schneider’s relationship with Herr Schultz, a local greengrocer, who is Jewish.
As the plot continues, self-indulgent people become oblivious to the rise of white nationalism that is evolving into fascism. Lives and countries are becoming destroyed.
The BCCPA production of “Cabaret” is the most successful that I have seen to date, and I have seen quite a few, including Judi Dench as Sally Bowles in London in 1968. What makes this show a work of art is the solid direction of Irene Molloy, who along with a great production team, has captured two elements that seem polar opposites. There is a joyful decadence to it all. Joy and decay. Like fruit that is left out on a hot day, the heat breaks down what was luscious and perfect. Decay sets in, and there is a smell of rot. The show is that potent in bringing forth what happens to a society when its citizens are not paying attention. Molloy has pulled out every stop in telling the story, and could not have cast the show better.
Meredith Beck, who has appeared on this stage as Eliza in “My Fair Lady,” previously has shown her musical comedy side, but what is most impressive is the depth of her acting and her ability of bringing out the light and dark sides of Sally Bowles. Her Sally shows you the kind of person that many know who make bad decisions based on what is the most dramatic choice. Beck goes from manically happy to exhaustingly sad. But she is always endearing and she breaks your heart, as she does in the show-stopping song, “Maybe This Time.”
Liam Snead plays the protagonist, writer Clifford Bradshaw, who comes to find an experience for a novel. He is great. His Cliff has a wide-eyed hopefulness and naivete that engages. In the past, this role can be forgettable. Not the case with Snead. (In real life, this story was Christopher Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories.” When the musical premiered in 1966, Cliff was straight. In the 1993 revision, Cliff is bisexual. The truth is Isherwood was gay and making Cliff more in the image of Isherwood fleshed out the role.)
Sebastian Ryder as Fraulein Schneider has two of my favorite songs of the show,”So What” and “What Would You Do?” Neither of these songs were in the movie, save the melody which was background music at one point. Beyond my love of the existential angst of both songs, they highlight the idea of apathy and nihilism that was pervasive in 1930s German society and, I would submit, to a large extent in America today. Ryder has charm as the late-to-love landlady and, eventually, when her heart breaks, so does ours.
Initially, when Paul Weagraff appears as the Jewish grocer, I thought, “Who is this goy?” But after awhile, realizing that he is not Jack Gilford or Ron Rifkin (former Jewish Broadway actors who played the role) but Paul Weagraff, I was more than okay with that. Weagraff brings an honesty to Herr Schultz, as in the scene where he is at his engagement party and drunk, and mentions his heritage to Nazi official Ernst Ludwig, which truly affects the audience. Like a black who can pass for white, Ernst is surprised and horrified that Herr Schultz is Jewish. It is a powerful scene.
Nathaniel Dolquist is my new idea of what the “Cabaret” Emcee should be. For so many years, he needed to be a cute, diminutive man like a Joel Grey. And then, there was the decadence of Alan Cummings. Dolquist, apologies to Justin Timberlake, ‘brings sexy back’ to a character who is a procurer as much as an entertainer. Why shouldn’t he have a handsome German jawline, blond hair and a good body like Dolquist? Unlike an unattractive emcee, his emcee baits you like no one before him to do the deliciously naughty, instead of the righteously good. And that temptation was in keeping with the Kit Kat Klub and the culture of its time. From “Wilkommen” to “Two Ladies” to “Money,” all of his songs with his Kit Kat Boys and Girls are spot on. But again, I particularly favor the hauntingly beautiful “I Don’t Care Much,” which was added to the show back in 1993. With the aforementioned songs by Fraulein Schneider, it highlights a society’s malaise.
I would be remiss to not offer a shout-out to musical director Tom Fosnocht and choreographer Peter John Rios.
This show has a sad serendipity. In real life, we have just witnessed a televised political rally where the chant, regarding a naturalized citizen and a sitting U.S. Congresswoman, was “send her back!” Indeed, racism seems to be a political strategy these days, an “othering” that is mirrored in this show with anti-semitism.
The Fraulein Schneiders of the world still say “What can I do? It will be what it will be,” or “All politicians are alike.” The Sally Bowles of the world are flippant and oblivious to politics
These parallels did not exist even four years ago. But with the rise of nationalism, abetted by the scapegoating of black and brown people, the show becomes more than entertainment highlighting a disturbing past. In overhearing conversations in the lobby, this was being noted by many in the audience at intermission.
When Sally Bowles finally sings “Cabaret,” like never before have I felt the strange, bittersweet feeling that I now realize you are supposed to feel. The song, when taken out of context, seems like a paean to “go out and live!” But, in the face of a sinking ship that was Germany heading toward the brink, it is a head-on assault on logic. “Cabaret” is the song of the oblivious masses, but the anthem for the Nazis in the show is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. In “Cabaret,” it rhymes, but does so with music and unsettling emotional power. You must see this show.
“Cabaret” continues through July 28, and tickets are available online.