By Ronnie Ruff
Produced by Arena Stage
The long history of Cabaret makes it extremely difficult to produce something refreshing and new for the seasoned theatre audience here in Washington, DC. I think, even more difficult, is the task of pleasing the critics who all have their favorite production. It was only a week or so ago that at least one major critical voice was calling for more political theatre to be produced in DC. Arena’s Cabaret is overtly political and takes very risky chances with the material. Some of the risks prove to be worth it while some are less successful.
Arena artistic director Molly Smith has mounted her vision of Cabaret with an eye on the current administration. The production draws comparisons between Iraqi War atrocities such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and horrible acts committed throughout the early days of the Nazi’s rise to power in Germany. These comparisons are pretty powerful symbols and reflect a bold view of the battle to preserve personal rights both here and abroad. In an interview with Joel Markowitz for his Theatre Schmooze column (DC Theatre Reviews) a few weeks ago Molly expressed her pointed feelings about the Bush administration and its abuses of personal liberties. In her production of Cabaret we witness Nazi brown shirts terrorize young Clifford Bradshaw and even take time to snap posed photos (reminding us of the horrific abuses of the afore mentioned Abu Ghraib).
There are some wonderful performances in Cabaret although not necessarily the ones you may be expecting. Walter Charles is simply endearing as Herr Shultz, his voice strong and pleasing, he ignores the oncoming menace transfixed only on his love for Fraulein Schneider (Dorothy Stanley). Fred Shiffman is smooth, possibly sinister as Ernst Ludwig and then there is Sherri L Edelen who takes a small role as Fraulein Kost and makes it all hers. What about the stars? Meg Gillentine portrays the iconic Sally Bowles and has a great voice, maybe too fantastic for a role where the character does not have an overabundance of talent or class as the Kit Kat torch singer. Brad Oscar is a different Emcee than you are used to in this role. He is a large man, boisterous and a bit clown like but with a rather scary sneer. Is he right for the part? Like many things in Arena’s Cabaret it is up for discussion but when the talk is over, one is glad to have witnessed his performance. This is not a Cabaret that is like anything you have seen before and that’s exactly what makes it work and sometimes misfire.
One of the best things about Arena’s Cabaret is Austin Sanderson’s wonderful costume design that brings a touch of whimsy to the show. Anne Patterson creates a lovely set that emphasizes functionality and a sense of style. The scene transitions seem effortless and snappy, a tribute to the design and direction.
George Fulginiti-Shakar is the music director and conductor for Cabaret and the music in this show is top notch. Like one has come to expect with Arena, the nine piece orchestra never overcooks and we are treated to a wonderful collection of Kander and Ebb material that doesn’t feel forced or strained. The second-act reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is possibly the show’s strongest musical performance while Meg Gillentine’s rendition of “Cabaret”, performed curled in a fetal position on the piano is perhaps the show’s most emotional number.
You might ask “Why should I see this show?” This reviewer’s answer is Molly Smith’s brave direction – she gives us a show that is not afraid to point to today’s headlines and say “never forget.” As the miniature train chugs across the stage and the sounds of genocide pound all around you – the black swastikas on blood red backgrounds remind us that we were fooled once before.
“Cabaret,” book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Selected noon matinees in October. Through Oct. 29.
TICKETS: $55 to $74 PHONE: 202/488-3300 Website