REVIEW: "Cabaret" - FUHS Theatre

"...Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome!"

Take your seat at the Kit Kat Club, a decadent cabaret in pre-war Berlin where Clifford Bradshaw, a young American writer, falls in love with the club’s headliner, Sally Bowles.

Playfully presided over by an outrageously rambunctious Emcee (Devin Ricklef) and bursting with a bevy of Broadway’s greatest hits, this Tony Award-winning tale of a love/war struggle to survive in tumultuous times simultaneously disarms and delights.

“Leave your troubles outside,” the Emcee coos. “Life is disappointing? Forget it!”

It’s soon clear that the same hand that coaxes you from the curtain also grabs for your money and attention like a climber hanging on the edge of a crumbling wall. It’s nearly 1930, and Berlin is slipping toward something very sinister indeed.

“Cabaret” is a 1966 musical with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff, based on John Van Druten's 1951 play, "I Am a Camera," which was adapted from the short novel "Goodbye to Berlin" (1939) by Christopher Isherwood.

Set in Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, it focuses on the nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, and revolves around writer Bradshaw and his relationship with English cabaret performer, Sally Bowles (Abigail Lange).

A sub-plot is undercurrent also, involving the doomed romance between German boarding house owner, Fräulein Schneider (Isley Duarte) and her elderly suitor Herr Schultz (Cooper Miller), a Jewish fruit vendor. Centralized to the action is the Kit Kat Klub, which serves as a metaphor for ominous political developments in late Weimar, Germany.

Living dangerously isn’t the intention of Bradshaw (Nathaniel Baesel) when he arrives in Berlin in 1929 with an unfinished novel and no means of support. Tall, handsome and assured, Bradshaw gives the starving artist a good shot of can-do American spirit. And thanks to a chance encounter on a train with Ernst Ludwig (the well-cast Gavin Huffaker), a German businessman whose business happens to be smuggling luxury goods from Paris, he soon has an affordable room, some students to tutor in English and an introduction to Berlin’s dissolute nightlife scene.

There is definitely a dangerous vibe at the Kit Kat Klub, where the Emcee’s sardonic introduction (“Willkommen”) sends shivers up the spine. The band has a killer style (the bawdy drumbeat is sexy, the wailing brass downright dirty), which the immaculate sound system designed by Avi Block projects into the house with stunning clarity. And in David Block’s intimate lighting, the chorus dancers look as if they’d be up for about anything.

This is the sordid milieu in which that endearing English tart, Sally Bowles (Ms. Lange), makes her stage entrance in “Don’t Tell Mama.” In this suggestive narrative ditty, Fred Ebb’s cunning lyrics invite prurient males to imagine getting into the “lacy pants” that this little convent girl is wearing under her school uniform.

Even racier than this teaser is her encore, “Mein Herr,” which is performed with much more artistry than you’d expect, considering the song, but still projects the wide-eyed innocence of an English schoolgirl. That vulnerable quality serves her well when Sally’s party-girl persona begins to crack, allowing her to pour her heart into “Maybe This Time.” And once Sally’s defenses are completely stripped away, she can channel all her desperation into the stirring title song.

Outside the Kit Kat Klub, the songs drop their sharply satiric edge to speak directly to character, most memorably in the bittersweet romance of Herr Schultz (Mr. Miller), the Jewish fruit merchant, and Fräulein Schneider (Ms. Duarte), the elderly rooming-house landlady. In that most tender of love songs, “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” a fresh pineapple becomes the token of their love.

As staged with sinister style on the small stage, the painfully beautiful and altogether chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” speaks more succinctly than any scene about the encroachment of Nazi politics into Berlin society. And when friend-turns-on-neighbor with hatred, Ms. Duarte voices Fraulein Schneider’s pain and despair in her impassioned delivery of “What Would You Do?” Smitten with her lodger’s kindness, she finds no place for a marriage like theirs in the soon Nazi Germany.

Meanwhile, back in the Kit Kat Klub, where the Nazis have infiltrated thickly, the cabaret songs are getting darker and darker and the Emcee’s makeup more ghoulish. In “If You Could See Her,” Mr. Ricklef seems to reach for supernatural inspiration to deliver Ebb’s depth charge of a final lyric. As the deliciously trashy Emcee dances the Kit Kat crew on a merry road to hell, lurking in shadows and smiling a lascivious grin, Mr. Ricklef sounds gleeful as he taunts the audience, “Hello, poor people!” and shows off the club girls in their dirty underthings…“each and every one — a virgin!”

Ms. Lange proves to be a powerful, empathetic performer. Sally’s sweetness flutters like a lacy robe over naked fear, panicked that if she stops and thinks for a moment she’ll crumble. Her Act II performance of “Cabaret’s” title song is as show-stopping of an eleven o’clock number as “Rose’s Turn” in “Gypsy.” Something in Sally cracks open.

However, I would have liked to have seen more sexual chemistry in Sally’s relationship with Clifford Bradshaw, the American bisexual writer who falls in love with her. Mr. Baesel is excellent in a role that can often seem underwritten, sharply capturing the character’s disgust at the rise of Nazism and his joy when he believes that he and Sally may have a child together. But I can’t seem to fathom him unexpectedly head-over-heels in love with her.

All in all, the production is marvelous and very enjoyable. Devin Ricklef has a genuinely disconcerting stage presence with his slicked-down hair, lustful eyes and predatory stillness, and there is a potent mixture of malignity and glee in his performance. As you would expect he sings extremely well too, especially in the initially beautiful “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which becomes increasingly sinister as he manipulates the Kit Kat ensemble as if they were puppets on strings, dancing to his tune. The parallel with Hitler and the German population becomes unmistakable.

Director Despars’ unexpected ending to the show, which would be a crime to reveal, is even more chilling, and one leaves this patchy but inventive production with a shiver of deep unease. Set Designer is Tate Heinle, Scenic Design is by Mark Rojo, and Hair and Makeup created by Abigail Lange and Isley Duarte, assisted by Sydney Castiglione and Georgia Rau. Costumes are by Beverly Shirk.

Directed by Michael Despars, and Musically Directed by Scott Hedgecock with Dialogue/Dialect Coaching by Genni Klein, this immensely charged show runs March 8th through March 16th at the Plummer Auditorium, Fullerton. This show is Highly Recommended!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

National Youth Arts