Place: Berlin, Germany; a small cabaret theatre. Time: between the two World Wars. The democratic Weimar Republic has been established in the wake of Germany’s humiliating defeat. But the Allies’ punitive reparations have left the economy in shambles, the people depressed, resentful, quick with a bitter quip, in desperate need of escape. For many, the cabaret provides the balm they seek. For those who seek a return to that time at turns nostalgic and surprisingly, even disturbingly current, the In Series’ music-filled cabaret show at Source Theatre will put you there at the drop of a fedora.
Berliner Kabarett is constructed around a series of popular songs from the period. A pianist (music director Alice Mikolajewski, who will later display her talents at the accordion for the aptly named “Useless Song” ) sets the scene with a medley of contemporaneous tunes as the audience slowly files in, taking in the scene but unaware that as the show progresses, they will find themselves part of it. In a meta-experience that becomes either intriguing or disorienting (or both), they will be serving not just as the play’s audience but as the cabaret’s. If that’s not enough, in further conflation of fiction and reality the characters inhabiting this cabaret bear the first names of the actors who play them.
A young man in a white undershirt (Ashley Ivey) lies stretched across a small round café table, an empty beer bottle perched perilously at its edge. His hand hangs listlessly, his back to the audience; blissfully unconscious, dead to the world. A small black chandelier with six flickering flames hangs above him, its twins visible behind thin orange- and rose-colored curtains at the back of the stage. “Trink, trink, Brüderlein trink, lass’ doch die Sorgen zu Haus’!” (Drink, drink, drink, little brother. Leave your worries at home!) we hear from the piano in rousing and for us, rueful commentary on the spectacle, at once funny and sad. (In contrast to the immobility of his opening scene, Ivey will prove to be an acrobatic chameleon, leading us through the depths of Weimar Germany with a series of characterizations and impersonations ranging from the raunchy to the rabid to the gloriously, hopelessly blotto.)
Berlin, 1918. The city welcomed everyone, says a weary veteran in fatigues (Jim Scopeletis). Drug addicts, artists, poets, Jews fleeing pogroms in Ukraine, entertainers, writers, musicians: All find a home in this restless, itchy, anything-goes metropolis, as dangerously on the edge as that bottle. The star of this cabaret, whose name by felicitous coincidence is one made legendary by Liza Minnelli in an analogous role, is named Sally (played by cabaret singer Sally Martin, a legend in her own right). Also on the bill are two female singers, the sultry, bedroom-eyed Tara (Tara McCredie) and the pigtailed pixie Emily (Emily Levey). Through their songs, we will come to know them, their city, their times and the events and emotions that infused and defined them.
As the show gets underway ,we are surprised to hear many of the songs sung in the original German, usually but not always followed by English translation. The singers’ pronunciation ranges from serviceable to excellent, their faces and gestures generally conveying the appropriate ideas or emotions. A case in point is Martin, whose German in “Lola” could use some polish. But that’s kleine Fische (small potatoes) in the context of her commanding performance of this song immortalized by Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel. With her provocatively blazing eyes, seductively placed hands and come-hither-but-at your-own-risk mien, Martin evokes Dietrich but makes the song entirely her own.
Later, in “Falling in Love Again” (which ends the first act), Martin channels Marlene more directly, but with a significant difference. Unlike Dietrich’s enticing Lola, for Martin, with the benefit of hindsight unavailable to Dietrich and her director, the song ends with a brisk shift in mood, her tragic face prefiguring the political and social changes that will send Germany and much of Europe careening headlong toward a destruction which, inconceivable as it would seem, will dwarf the horrific slaughterhouse of its predecessor. Martin also gives a searing rendition of the Bertolt Brecht / Kurt Weill “Song of a German Mother” who berates herself for encouraging her now-dead son, once filled with excitement at the possibilities the Nazis promised him, to follow the Fuehrer. “If only I’d known, I’d have hanged myself from a tree,” she cries, her timeless lament piercing the listener’s heart.
Viewing the war from the widow’s perspective is the unemotional, dirge-like and yet wrenching “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife.” Here Levey, Ivey and McCredie take turns extolling the treasures sent to the soldier’s beloved from the foreign lands in which he was billeted: high-heeled shoes from Prague, fur collar from Oslo, silk dress from Paris… and from Russia? “From Russia they sent her the long black veil, for a widow so pale needs a long black veil, from Russia so far away.” Paradoxically, the singers’ stark refusal to play to the emotions here makes the simple, almost tuneless song deeply affecting.
The show generally succeeds in achieving an unlikely blend of classic cabaret rowdiness, moments of quiet reflection and strongly felt emotion, although it can be jarring when the shift is abrupt. In Act I, Martin’s sizzling “Take It Off, Petronella” (made especially delectable by the mean roll she accords her “r,” imparting a special oomph to her wild shriek of “StrrrrrrrRIP!”) is followed by Hugo Wolff’s dark setting of Eduard Mörike’s Gebet (Prayer). In a split second the lighting changes. We see Jim, seated at a small table in the darkness, back to the audience, head bowed, maybe even falling into his drink; his face in the gloom, a soft spotlight illuminates the back of his head. The prayer is recited, with no pretense or expectation; he is beyond it.
On the other side of the emotional seesaw Levey, a toddler’s dream dressed in party-girl garb (white puffed sleeves, fitted black vest, and as a finishing touch, black stockings laced with wide pink satin ribbons ending in huge bows at the hem of her pink tutu) plays well with others, effectively setting off their more dominant characters. Her duets with McCredie (“I Don’t Know to Whom I Belong” and “Alabama Song”); Martin (a bravura, tour-de-force duet of the archetypal he-done-me-wrong “Surabaya Johnny”), and Scopeletis (the enduring “Lili Marlene”) are especially touching, her clear voice bestowing an unexpected sweetness on the songs. McCredie, a rich-voiced mezzo whose classical training is evident and gratifying, also excels in a no-holds-barred “Sex Appeal,” stripping off her black jacket to reveal a bare back, her boobs tightly cupped in cherry-red velour, her black-lace-edged camisole held precariously in place with thin black ribbons.
True to its heritage the show is also slyly political, at times veering into the politically incorrect; at others, with a wink, only seeming to. A wild-eyed, lunatic, mustachioed Ashley (we watch him paint it on) struts onstage Nazi-style, spitting violent execrations against Dadaists, Cubists and other less-than-human lowlifes, the toes of the boots on his out-thrust legs comically threatening to meet his face and knock him senseless. One of the best jokes – and one that speaks volumes about the people of the time who created it, used it, and enjoyed it – comes in a conversation between Jim and Ashley. “Who is responsible for the fact that we lost the war?” asks the young soldier. “The Jewish generals, of course,” responds the veteran. “But we didn’t have any Jewish generals,” protests the younger. “Not ours,” comes the wistful reply. “Theirs.”
Lest we think that that these people and times are far removed from us and ours, the ever-wily Weill (3 of the show’s translated lyrics by Bari Biern) might beg to differ. As if to emphasize its relevance, the entire cast takes up his and Biern’s “The Mussel from Margate” (in the program “The Sea-shell from Margate”), a 1928 anti-petroleum protest song that castigates the oil companies for recklessly causing pollution.”Who would have known that/ joining sea and soil/joining Shell and oil/ would end up costing us as our salvation?” they intone, eyes fixed on us. And who would have imagined that joining a musical genre predating our parents with a youthful cast of talented singing actors would end up throwing new light on their lives – and ours? Who, indeed…
Written and directed by Chris Gallu
Musical director Alice Mikolajewski
Music material selected by Chris Gallu and Carla Hübner
Produced by Source Theatre
Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.