Cabaret, book by Joe Masteroff (based on the play "I Am a Camera" by John VanDruten and the Berlin Stories of Christopher Isherwood), Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander. Directed by Matthew Teichner; Choreography by Meaghan Rogers. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
The Kit Kat girls, Nicole Molinski , Mae Rogers, Bethany Geiger, Chloe Vader, Kathleen Rembish; rehearsal photo: Joanne Sikora
"A bottle of champagne. . .all right - a glass of champagne."
Brian McBride Land, Nicole Mecca; rehearsal photo: Joanne Sikora
"They sparkle, they bubble, they's gonna get you in a whole lot of trouble. . ." is not a lyric from this show but it is one that spells out the problem with "Cabaret" in the revised form in which it is now being presented at the Ghent Playhouse. The show has pizzazz and it has vinegar but it has very little sizzle and almost no spice. Director Matthew Teichner has elected the ugly side over the brighter one, the hateful over the beautiful. Sally Bowles, a meagerly talented singer, captivates the imagination of bisexual Clifford Bradshaw, but she cannot sustain their relationship due to her fickle nature which won't allow her to be open-minded in ways other than those that favor herself alone. Clifford is heart-broken for a moment but finally finds inspiration through her malignant nature. Based on the relationship between novelist Christopher Isherwood and political activist nightclub singer Jean Ross, the story has entranced readers and theater-goers since 1931.
The Broadway revival script and score, used in this production, removed any trace of real romance and presents the story of an opportunist Sally, a weak and demanding Cliff and an overly sleazy nightclub emcee whose personal politics are ultimately his own undoing in a country being overrun by Nazism. There is a tender tale of late-in-life romance between a German landlady and a Jewish grocer which takes center stage with the ruins of relationships around them serving as an accidental framework for the story of how politics can destroy human feelings and honesty. Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, therefore, emerge as the stars and focus of this production with Sally and Cliff taking a definitive back-seat. This was never the intent of the show's creators but love in the time of Trump is an unsure commodity, tinged with deceit and self-destructiveness, and that echo roars through the Ghent production.
Nicole Mecca plays Sally Bowles. When Liza Minelli played this role on screen it was just as clear as when Judy Garland - her mother - played the lead in "A Star is Born" that Sally is an extremely talented, if freaky, human being. Mecca wonderfully plays the ego of the character, self-centered and needy, and she also exemplifies the shortdcomings of Sally. She sings well, without a trace of vibrato, and she moves well. Her Sally is clearly calculating and insincere, but sure enough of her seductive powers to get what she needs when she wants it. Mecca does this all very well, but in playing this version of Sally, she is also crystal clear about Sally's shortcomings as a human being. We never sympathize with her plights, career or personal. We, the knowledgeable audience, are never swayed by her arguments, never convinced of her affections. When she mourns her past tragedies in the song "Maybe This Time" we don't buy her story. When she sings of her personal triumphs in life in the title tune we never quite get the personal trauma that the song underplays. Mecca gives us just what the designers of the show want us to have: no reason to mourn her loss into the decadence of the day.
Her swain of the moment, hero of the play, Clifford Bradshaw, is nicely played by Alex Benson. Just handsome enough to be convincing as the man everyone wants to know, Benson plays Cliff as a man without a country, without a purpose and without a soul who finds one at the last minute and dons it as he would a comfortable old coat that belonged to someone else, in this case to Herr Schultz, a born victim of his time and place. One of the few "romantic" heroes of the musical genrre to never have a song of his own, he duets with Sally early on and that romantic voice is never heard again. Under Teichner's direction even his anger is played as passive rather than active and his parting from Sally seems inevitable rather than regrettable.
The Emcee is played in a very testy manner by Brian McBride Land. He is presented without qualms as a man whose French and English are more than ignored in his role at the Kit-Kat Klub and whose German sensibility never grows, but is what it is from the outset. He is an angry man, hostile to his environment and his "fans" who he abuses as eagerly as he does his boyfriends and his mistresses. This Emcee is on a one-way street from the outset and he never grows with the changing times but rather seems to lead the way for the Nazi enthusiasms for humiliation, and for racial abuse. Land does well with his musical numbers but his acting chops are never allowed to show change in attitude, shifts in morality or anything else.
Emily Spateholts plays the prostitute Fraulein Kost with humor and gusto and her singing in the first act finale is spectacular. Hers is one of the best interpretations of a role in this play and we can sympathize with the plight of the "working girl" in her presentation. Likewise the Ernst Ludwig of Mike Meier is a fullsome and understandable character. Meier joins Spateholts in the credo-song "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," a song that has given me chills since the first time I heard it on Broadway in the original production. It's a pity that the show doesn't unite these two characters beyond this one moment for these two performers are stellar.
The new leads, Schneider and Schultz, are played by Sally McCarthy and Monk Schane-Lydon and played very, very well indeed. They provide a softness, a sweetness and a romantic side that any musical needs to succeed. Their scenes together are tender and vulnerable and human and this show could use a touch more of that. They are the champagne in a sea of bitter-brew beer. Somone should mount a show for the two of them to do, maybe "I Do, I Do" would suit their on-stage chemistry.
In the small roles, Dove Frishkoff does nicely as Bobby, Max and a host of sailors. Meaghan Rogers and Kathleen Rembish work well together with Land in "Two Ladies." The Kit-Kat girls all do well with Meaghan Rogers quirky, Bob Fosse inflected choreography. It is director Teichner's physical concept of open stage with scaffolding, seen in his wonderful edition of "The Rocky Horror Show" recently, that defines the edges of this production. Here is a view of the world as seen through the blank stare of the Emcee, with only one wall of note, the one whose harsh, metal door he uses to close out the world of the club and the world of the changing political scene. If there needs to be a musical about life in the time of Hitler or life in the time of Trump, it is best symbolized in this wall, this heavy door and in the aftermath of choices as reflected in the final wardrobe change of the Emcee.
This is a powerful show, not one for children, graphic in its exposure to sex, sin, morality and mortality. It is a show that pleases through displeasure and digs deep in the eroticism of political sexuality. The cast in this production do everything they can do other than have actual intercourse in order to expose the ways in which behavior lead to understanding, even of the basest issues in life. It takes two and a half hours to make its points. And it makes them.
Cabaret runs at the Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, NY through April 1. For information and tickets go to ghentplayhouse.org or call 518-392-6264.