The Kit Kat Club roars to life with trashy, Weimar-era decadent splendor in Signature Theatre’s smashing production of Cabaret, directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner.
Based on Christopher Isherwood’s memoir I Am a Camera (which was adapted by John Van Druten into a 1951 play) Cabaret was turned into a cynical, swaggering 1966 Broadway hit musical by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. The 1972 Bob Fosse movie version featured iconic performances by Liza Minnelli as party girl and cabaret singer Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the epicene Emcee.
The MAX Theatre has been transformed by Misha Kachman into a naughty nightclub from 1930s Berlin, with café tables ringing the thrust stage, a silver streamers curtain lending a girly-show air and the orchestra (in full drag make-up) tucked in a second level balcony. Smudged mirrors line the walls of the theater.
Your attention, however, is fixed on the Emcee (Wesley Taylor), a pansexual satyr in leather lederhosen accessorized with S&M gear. Taylor is an alluring amalgam; the whiteface greasepaint and sneering diction is a nod to Joel Grey, while the slithery sexuality recalls Alan Cumming’s more recent take on the character. The Emcee sets the tone for the musical with the opening numbers, “Willkommen” and “Welcome to Berlin,” which he and the frowzy Kit Kat Girls (Colleen Hayes, Shayna Blass, Rachel Schur, Jamie Eacker, Maria Rizzo, Jessica Thorne) deliver with tawdry flair.
The Kit Kat Club’s star, as it were, is Sally Bowles (Barrett Wilbert Weed), a London lass who makes up with cheek and cheer what she may lack in star blazing talent. She sings her first number, a faux shocker called “Don’t Tell Mama,” with saucer-eyed insolence, as if she’s a naif who finds herself scantily clad in grown-up clothing.
Weed’s portrayal is greatly appealing and fresh—and even though Sally is not supposed to be a world-class chanteuse, the actress can belt with the best of them and even brings layers of smokiness and smolder to her vocalizations, especially the expectant torch song, “Maybe This Time.”
Sally’s spirit attracts the attention of Cliff (Gregory Wooddell, who combines All-American hero looks with tender sensitivity), a novelist who comes to Berlin to write but instead falls under her spell. Their affair plays out against the rise of Nazism in Germany, signaling the end of an era for libertine Berlin in favor of a menacing, brutal regime.
There’s not much romantic chemistry between the two, which makes love songs like “Maybe This Time” and “Perfectly Marvelous” a bit of a stretch and overall their relationship seems borne more out of convenience and opportunity than desire. It also emphasizes the matter of Cliff’s sexual orientation, but instead of being suavely bisexual in a Noël Coward-ly way, he seems to be a conflicted, closeted gay man and Sally his beard.
That takes some of the fizz out of the Sally and Cliff love story, but luckily the other romantic love plot is deeply satisfying and believable. Local stage greats Rick Foucheux and Naomi Jacobsen play late-blooming love birds Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit merchant, and Fraulein Schneider, a lonely landlady. Their songs, “It Couldn’t Please Me More (Pineapple Song),” “So What?” and “Married” are Kander and Ebb’s marvelous tributes to the acidic lyricism of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and Foucheux and Jacobson handle the sophisticated strains and emotional heft of the songs with style and artistry.
Their simple, innocent love story is in contrast to the dissolute goings on at the Kit Kat Club and the growing power of the Nazis, personified by the characters of Ernst (a superb Bobby Smith), who goes from elegant man-about-town to cruel champion of the Party and Fraulein Kost (Maria Rizzo, admirably tough in the role), a prostitute who embraces the regime as a way to get by.
Audiences have loved Cabaret for decades—it’s air of sexy wickedness, political punch and strident gaiety and its portrayal of a society desperately trying to keep the party going, to have one last good time before life as they know it is gone forever.
Cabaret . Book by Joe Masteroff . Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood . Music by John Kander . Lyrics by Fred Ebb . Broadway production produced and directed by Harold Prince . Signature Theatre direction and choreography by Matthew Gardiner .
Featuring Wesley Taylor, Barrett Wilbert Weed, Rick Foucheaux, Naomi Jacobson, Bobby Smith, Maria Rizzo, Gregory Wooddell, Shayna Blass, Kurt Boehm, Mark Chandler, Jordan DeBona, Jamie Eacker, Colleen Hayes, Rachel Schur, Jessica Thorne and Joseph Tudor. Choreography: Kelly D’Amboise, Musical Direction: Jon Kalbfleisch . Scenic Design: Misha Kachman . Costume Design: Frank Labovitz . Lighting Design: Jason Lyons . Sound Design: Lane Elms . Wigs: Anne Nesmith ; Dialect Coach: Leigh Wilson Smiley . Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein, assisted by Karen Currie . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.