Joe Masteroff (Book); John Kander (Music); Fred Ebb (Lyrics)
|Randy Harrison as MC with the Kit Kat Girls and Boys|
Since its 1966 Broadway debut and its initial eight Tonys, the inspiring hit Cabaret has continued to evolve through several major, award-winning revivals in both New York and London, becoming ever darker, starker, and rawer with each new production during its fifty-year history. The current Roundabout Theatre Company touring version of this Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics) icon of American Musical Theatre is boiling hot from Minute One with sexually explicit grabbing, rubbing, pinching, slapping, and thrusting of every possible body part by a cast dressed scantily in cheap bras, panties, and garters or in torn t-shirts, leather, and boots. While we hear in the opening moments our Emcee sing in “Willkommen” that in this early 1930s Berlin, “We have no trouble here … Here life is beautiful,” there is an immediate unease, foreboding, and sense of coming doom that is much more visceral than in the original, happier welcome by the Emcee so many of us know from both stage and movie, Joel Grey. SHN hosts this current startling, unsettling, yet sensational in music and acting Cabaret– a version that speaks volumes to our current times with warnings to pay attention, stay alert, and take a stand before it is too late.
Against a backdrop of increasingly threatening clouds of the coming storm of evil, two parallel love stories serve as the framework for Cabaret – stories whose doomed trajectories mirror the collapse of the free and accepting society around them. In a free-flowing, boundary-defying society that has openly flaunted every diversity imaginable, one set of would-be young lovers is a gay man and a sexually fluid woman (still almost a girl), and the other set is an aging German (i.e., Aryan) spinster and a widowed, Jewish merchant. That they each find attraction with someone not quite in their own mold is the key to each pairing’s demise in the xenophobic world rising around them.
Aspiring writer Clifford Bradshaw arrives on New Year’s Eve from America looking for inspiration for his novel and finds himself suddenly roommate with a nineteen-year-old, British nightclub entertainer, Sally Bowles. Lee Aaron Rosen does a fine job in portraying this starving writer who quickly becomes embroiled and totally fascinated in the fast-paced, frenetic scene of Berlin’s sleazier nightlife, who finds himself surprisingly falling in love with Sally, and who steps up to propose marriage once Sally finds herself pregnant with the father possibly being one of many possibilities, including evidently Cliff.
|Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles|
Andrea Goss brings to her Sally Bowles an exquisite combination of a fragile vulnerability suggesting total collapse any moment and of a stubborn streak of inner strength suggesting survival against all odds. Her naughtiness is both tongue in cheek and erotic as she clicks off lines in her edgy voice in “Don’t Tell Mama,” and her defiance is angrily asserted in high kicks and full voice in “Mein Herr.” Her Sally provides in the latter song a metaphor for the shockwave about to hit German society as she sings, “It was a fine affair, but now it’s over.” Later, she ends an initially contemplative “Maybe This Time” with a hopeful but not convincing whisper, “It’s got to happen, happen sometime, maybe this time, I’ll win.” While both songs are about her love life, her moods, looks, and intonations in each all paint a picture of something dire on the horizon. But it is in her closing “Cabaret” when Ms. Goss — with a numbed, shell-shock expression — sings in half-cry, half-song her Kit Kat Club finale that she epitomizes the reality for her and all around her of the collapse of her and their lives, even as she stubbornly ignores those realities to remain in Berlin.
|Shannon Cochran as Fräulein Schneider and Mark Nelson as Herr Schultz|
In many respects, the more compelling and heart-wrenching love story of the two is the one between boarding house owner, Fräulein Schneider, and fruit shop merchant, Herr Schultz. Together, they are delightfully cute as they flirt, sing, and waltz in “It Couldn’t Please Me More” – also known affectionately as “The Pineapple Song.” And they are deeply romantic as they duet in “Married,” “For you look up one day and look around and say, some body wonderful married me.” Mark Nelson’s voice has a quality reminiscent of one coming from a 1930’s radio with its crisp, smiling sound as his Herr Schultz woos his Fräulein. Shannon Cochran brings incredible depth and breadth to her vocals with a voice that can go from a harsh gravelly quality to one that has spark, lift, and resolution, as is heard in her “So What?” But when she calls off her marriage to the Jewish Herr Schultz because she is unwilling to stand up to the mocks and threats of her Nazi-loving neighbors and friends, the dignified but resigned and deflated Fräulein Schneider brings the audience to dead silence as she sings in a trembling, sad voice full of forebode, “There’s a storm in the wind … What would you do?”
|Randy Harrison as Emcee|
Always watching from a perch above or appearing suddenly in any one scene as a passer-by, a living prop, or a too-knowing observer, the Emcee is like a German everyman who is seeing and participating in both the frenzied world of complete, hell-bent freedom and the approaching dominance of Fascism. Randy Harrison (the young Justin Taylor in the long-running “Queer as Folk”) takes on the role made so famous by the likes of Tony winners Joel Grey and Alan Cumming and brings his own uninhibited, fervent interpretation as well as a singing voice that can sizzle, snarl, and seduce as needed. He leaves all restraints behind as he, Lulu (Dani Spieler) and Bobby (Leeds Hill) bring the house down with their “fiddle-de-dees” and XXX-rated shadow play in “Two Ladies.” He is the voice of repulsive anti-Semitism in his duet with a gorilla girlfriend (Aisling Halpin), “If You Could See Her,” (luring us in first with a song seemingly about tolerance); and he is the citizen listening with intrigue to the scratchy recording of a young boy singing the Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” His ghostly voice in “I Don’t Care Much” rings with echoes of memories of what was and is full of pain and defeat of what now is. And when we see in the end who the Emcee really represents and thus what becomes his fate, an audible, collective gasp erupts across the audience, followed by stunned silence except for scattered sounds of soft crying.
The grim, mostly empty stage of black, cracking walls and three red doors appears to be Robert Brill’s way of reminding us that the economy and the outlook is grim, no matter how laissez-faire and loose the norms and nightlife may at first appear in this Berlin of the early 30s. William Ivey Long’s costumes for the Kit Kat Club Girls and Boys, the MC, and Sally are lewd and luscious at the same time; and for all other characters, exactly how one might picture an era where a Depression has brought the society to its knees. Cynthia Onrubia has taken Rob Marshall’s original choreography and added many touches that are raw and harsh as well as stunning and spell bounding as so ably carried out by the talented cast. BT McNicholl’s direction never gives us a moment to wander in our attention and continually builds tension and apprehension of the oncoming storm after having first titillating our sense and sensibilities with all the outlandish shenanigans of the Kit Kat world.
I have been fortunate to see many outstanding versions of Cabaret, including revivals reprising the starring roles of Messieurs Grey and Cumming in the 1987 and 2014 revivals as well as amazing local productions at TheatreWorks (1996) and San Francisco Playhouse (2008), with this latest production appearing at SHN being a gut-wrenching, moving, and also exuberant addition. Each time, I am left with two haunting memories. The first is the earworm that will not go away of the alluring melody with horrific meanings, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (sung in this production with chilling beauty by Alison Ewing as Fräulein Kost and Ned Noyes as Ernst Ludwig). No matter what I do, I cannot seem to stop humming for days afterward the glorious-sounding tune, even as I remind myself that it is a call to Aryan youth and citizens to join the Nazi cause.
The second is Fräulein Schneider’s “What Would You Do” – with my always wondering what would I have done then if I had been either she or Herr Schultz. Would I have stood up to others’ threats? Would I have risked my life to save others? Would I have remained with undue optimism that the inevitable would not happen? More important, what will I do now, especially with the growing xenophobia and hate-speech/acts erupting all around us?
Even now, I hear Shannon Cochran as Fräulein Schneider and her stirring, haunting voice probing,
“Go on; tell me,
I will listen.
What would you do?
If you were me?”
Rating: 5 E
Cabaret continues through July 17, 2016 at at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.
Photo Credits: Joan Marcus
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