Photo by Matthew Brian Denman
I’m not sure the number of times the groundbreaking 1966 musical Cabaret has been remounted in the world since its Broadway debut 46 years ago, but I would suspect it might surpass most other candidates for Ripley status.
My own affection for the story goes back to my early teens, about the time when I started discovering writers who made my head explode, forever changing my life and sparking my understanding of my place in the world. I dived voraciously into works by Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet, James Baldwin, Ayn Rand (sorry), William F. Burroughs, and especially Christopher Isherwood, whose 1939 highly personal novella Goodbye to Berlin, part of The Berlin Stories, was subsequently the basis for John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera and, ultimately, for Cabaret.
Full disclosure here: I have always loved the notoriously juicy Kander and Ebb score, yet have also harbored a frustrating underlying disappointment in Joe Masterhoff’s musical adaptation. Under the gloriously rich and clever leadership of director Michael Matthews, however, the Celebration Theatre’s brand new mounting of Cabaret is gorgeously fresh and suitably decedent.
Stephen Gifford’s intimate set design recreates an environmental version of the Kit Kat Club at the pintsized Lex, complete with crystal chandeliers sparkling over the heads of the audience and gilt mirrors and sexy renaissance paintings festooned to the walls. The minute one enters the theatre, we are transported back to 1929 Berlin, where dancers languish in sexy poses in Michael Mullen’s glittery period finery around the stage and a handful of lucky patrons sit at café tables being served by the ensemble while Matthew Brian Denman’s strident and moody lighting plot is accentuated by strings of arcing carnival lights.
The production’s single playing space transforms from the club into the train station where Cliff prophetically first meets his nemesis Ernst, and then morphs into the parlor of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house with little set changes beyond lighting and sound cues. The dramatic scenes unfold in this shared area, although it’s always exciting to return periodically to the Kit Kat, where the grandly sensuous production numbers choreographed by Janet Roston are the true wonder of this excellent and surprisingly fresh revival.
As the Emcee, Alex Nee is near-perfect as he leads the club’s world-weary performers in some of the best renditions of Cabaret’s infectious ensemble spectacles with consummate skill and just enough gravel in his voice to make his turn in the familiar role truly unique. Talisa Friedman seems not completely comfortable yet allowing herself to totally inhabit the skin of the multi-faceted Sally, but if her rendition of “Maybe This Time” is any indication, I’m quite sure she’s gonna find her sea-legs purdy durn quick as she lives with this hauntingly complex character 24/7 over the coming weeks.
June Carryl is a rock as Fraulein Schneider, delivering the landlady’s two showstopping but thematically diverse ballads, “So What?” and “What Would You Do?”, with phenomenal success. Her scenes with Matthew Henerson as poor doomed Herr Schultz are also golden, but whenever Friedman or any of these other characters have to interact with Christopher Maikish as Cliff, the production flatlines. There’s little chemistry between his Cliff and her Sally, and even less with Tanner Rampton as Bobby, Cliff’s former paramour whose presence makes the guy run to Sally despite the odds.
John Colella has some promising moments as Ernst, but mining a bit deeper into the divide between the man’s friendly demeanor when meeting Cliff and the later reality of what his character represents could be accentuated. It’s fun to see the rather pregnant Katherine Tokarz pose suggestively around her baby-bump as the usually more licentious and intemperate Fraulein Kost, and although she could use a little help with her makeup to keep her from looking so well-scrubbed and healthy, her comedic delivery shines.
The highlight of this Cabaret is the commitment and talent of the out-there eclectic ensemble Matthews has guided to enormous success despite consisting of only six dancers. Although it’s clear this gamely willing team could make the MeToo movement look as though it has failed miserably, it’s a treat whenever Rampton, Jasmine Ejan, Tristan McIntyre, Sarah Mullis, Nicole Stouffer, and Mary Ann Welshans take the stage. None of this could have worked in this limited playing space without the extraordinary vision of this director and his equally extraordinary choreographer, who seems to have a knack for creating vertical movements rather than cramping her dancers' mobility.
Now, my personal druthers. Although I have never performed in a production of the musical myself, I did play the Clifford Bradshaw character, actually still named Christopher Isherwood in Van Druten’s script, about 40 years ago in I Am a Camera opposite two sorely-missed actors, Eileen Brennan as Sally Bowles and Frances Bay as Frau Schneider. Never a big success, the original Broadway production made a star of Julie Harris as Sally yet is most famous for a quote from Walter Kerr’s original review in the New York Times: “Me no Leica.”
I have always preferred the play over the musical, which somehow misses the point of Sally Bowles. I do understand why many people had trouble, when I Am a Camera first debuted in 1951, buying that anyone as outrageously nuts as Sally could really have existed. Obviously, they didn’t grow up in the theatre.
Still, nestled in the nurturing wings of Chris himself and his beloved Don in my early 20s when I first escaped to LA, the great yet most accessible writer assured me his account of Berlin in the Weimar era and the ominous impending disaster soon-to-be inflicted upon Germany and Europe by the Nazi regime was real. And, he assured me, Sally was as just as real as she was bigger than life.
Although Cabaret loudly trumpets the behavior of Sally, making her the wild character we all love, a passage from the original story has always stayed with me: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Yet the reality of Sally, to me, goes far beyond her conduct. In the novella and the play, she is the broadly-sketched embodiment of what hampers the lives of so many people who spend their entire lives continuously trying to be what they think other people believe them to be rather than living for who they are. Ayn Rand (sorry again) called it “Living as second-handers.”
Perhaps if the inherent darkness that overtakes Cabaret still included that warning, something that shows us how easily we as ordinary decent conformist-by-nature citizens can suddenly find ourselves joining Ernst and Kost at the end of Act One for a rousing though chilling march-tempo encore of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” maybe the musical would be even more brilliant—and cautionary—than it already is.
As Schultz tells Cliff during what will surely be his last goodbye, “Mazel—it’s what we all need.” With the world in urgent risk of crumbling around us at the hands of another insane monster bizarrely granted carte blanche to facilitate our inhumane downfall, more than any time before in my long lifetime, I can only hope it’s not already too late to fight the darkness that could smother us all once again like an evil enveloping shroud.
THROUGH AUG. 5: Celebration Theatre, 6760 Lexington Av., Hollywood. 323.957.1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com