“Life is a cabaret, old chum—come to the cabaret!” sings Sally Bowles (Maya M. Park ’16), but her invitation to the Kit Kat Klub in gritty 1930s Berlin turns out to be only partially tempting. In this HRDC production of the Broadway musical “Cabaret,” the song and dance numbers in between scenes serve as a welcome reprieve to the occasionally heavy-handed delivery of the narrative by the cast. Although the Emcee (Alexander M. Willis ’14) and the back-up dancers are only meant to guide the story along, they end up stealing the show with witty line delivery and well-choreographed routines. Sadly, their performances leave the sections regarding the relatively flat narrative standing in the shadow of the excellent dancing.
“Cabaret” revolves around the relationship between British dancer Sally Bowles and young American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Jeremy Y. Venook ’15), who fall into unlikely companionship as both struggle to find their way in a rapidly changing Berlin on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power. However, the real vivacity in the play is provided by a cast of erotic dancers in lingerie—or, for the men, pants, suspenders, and a healthy dose of lipstick—all expertly choreographed by Hazel A. Lever ’13.
Crucial to this musical is the interaction between the dancers and the audience. To achieve the atmosphere of a genuine nightclub, stage manager Sally M. Castillo ’14 banished the barriers between stage and audience by arranging the seats around tables, complete with red velvet tablecloths and flickering electric candles. This part-grimy dance club, part-late night comedy club feel sets the viewers up for a night of slapstick laughs, and in this respect the show certainly delivers. In one scene Cliff quips, “I was in a fight last night. You should have seen the other three guys… not a mark on ’em!”
In the fashion of a true 1930s nightclub, the music in the show is provided by a live band that shares the stage with the actors. While the music is a fun way to bring life to the Kit Kat Klub, Park’s solos in songs such as “Mein Herr” are mostly incomprehensible, as her words are drowned out by the saxophone even though she hits every high note flawlessly. Although Park takes center-stage in this particular song, she fails to attract the viewer’s attention—all the spectacle occurred against railings along the ceiling, where the other dancers twisted and contorted in an intriguing fusion of modern dance and more traditional jazz moves reminiscent of the “Cell Block Tango” in “Chicago.”
The musical truly captivates only during the interludes with these dancers. The Emcee’s segments bring a bit of lighthearted fun to the show’s tense anti-semetic themes without diminishing their effect. One memorable sequence acts as a plea for equality in all forms of love: homosexual, interracial, or otherwise. The Emcee sings to a gorilla in a tutu, “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!” Another song, “Money,” involves a troupe of homoerotic dancers and women in lingerie grasping the Emcee’s body in an orgy of near-cannibalistic lust, and Willis’s playful winks and sensual swagger dominate the stage. His Emcee is perfect—we’re never quite sure of his orientation, but we’re always left gasping for more.
One of the Emcee’s strengths is his ability to exaggerate without caricaturing the German accent. This is not true of some of the other cast members. In one scene as Herr Schultz (Ari D. Brenner ’14) proposes to Frau Schneider (Taylor K. Phillips ’15), the over-the-top accents detract from an otherwise serious scene, which poses the question: Are the bad accents intentional or just the result of poor acting? Willis is the only actor in the play who truly manages to pull off the faux-German accent without it being just irritating.
Fortunately, this fault does not define the show. By the last scene, Venook manages to bring life to an otherwise uninteresting performance. His character’s unfailing moral compass leads Cliff naturally away from Nazi ideology, and his love for Sally blinds him to her faults—nothing special here. However, Venook’s shining moment occurs in the final song, which acts as a trilingual close parenthesis on Cliff’s time in Berlin. Through his body language and his subtle intonation of voice, he manages to communicate his sudden and shattering rift with Germany and Sally, both of which he once loved. Harkening back to the first song of the musical, Cliff sings, “Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome,” leading, finally, to the Emcee concluding, “Auf wiedersehen, à bientot, goodnight,” a simple, sad tilt of the head to an “all good things” mantra.
“Cabaret” is an adventure and a mostly enjoyable one, even if its finest parts had little to do with the storyline at all. There are certainly some great one-liners in the narrative script, but unfortunately their delivery is lost amidst the force of the spectacle.
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