Christopher Isherwood's 1939 novel "Goodbye to Berlin" told stories of his time living in Berlin around 1930. John Van Druten adapted the novel into the 1951 play I Am a Camera and, drawing upon both sources, book writer Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb created Cabaret. Most of the musical is set inside the Kit Kat Klub, a decadent Berlin nightclub in 1931 with a mischievous Emcee overseeing the proceedings of its carefree customers, while Hitler's rise to power is happening just outside its doors. But it is also the story of two very different couples, at different stages in their lives, facing very different obstacles. Penniless American bisexual novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Matt Earnest) has just arrived in Berlin to work on his novel. Sally Bowles (Michele Kahn), the English Kit Kat headliner, after a chance meeting at the club with Cliff, shows up on his doorstep looking for a place to live and they set about forming an interesting living relationship. Meanwhile, Cliff's middle-aged landlady the German Fraulein Schneider (Petey Swartz) and the sweet, charming Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz (Ron Jennings) have a blossoming romance of their own. With the Nazi regime on the rise, everyone's life in Berlin is about to change. As Sally continues to proclaim that "life is a cabaret," the world outside is set to come crashing down all around her as well as everyone else in Germany.
While the show seems almost tame now in its attempt to be shocking, one can only imagine what the experience was like to see it when it first premiered almost fifty years ago. I'm sure the combination of anti-Semitism, swastika-wearing cast members, talk of abortion and sexual proclivities was enough to raise the ire of many audience members. The addition of an Emcee that sheepishly draws the audience into the era, and comments mockingly on the atrocities around us, was also a nifty way to frame the proceedings and deceptively reflect and make audiences in 1966 realize that the show was eerily also about the modern day horrors always lurking right outside their door. The recent 1998 Broadway revival that starred Alan Cumming as the Emcee, which received a revival itself on Broadway this season, added many elements to ratchet up the shock factor but also wisely honed in on and clarified the relevance of the horrors of Nazism.
Director David Hock's decision to stick with an older version of the show is worthy, in that it provided audiences the chance to see what the show was like before director Sam Mendes heightened the sexuality in his 1998 production. While this older version is more of a museum piece today, with very little in the way of shock value, it also delivers slightly watered down elements that Mendes also heightened, specifically about the upcoming results of the Nazi regime. However, the SMTC production provided a glimpse into what made the original production so successful. It is an interesting look back at the desperation of the era, the horrors lurking in the shadows, and the inability for anyone to completely comprehend what the consequences of Hitler's power would have to Germany, and ultimately the entire world. With so many people today willing to turn a blind eye to situations such as political unrest in third world countries, poverty and other worldly topics such as climate change, the thematic elements of the musical are actually still relevant today.
The SMTC production excelled in its casting, but fared slightly less well in its production elements. Michele Kahn easily made us believe that Sally was the self-proclaimed "mysterious and fascinating" lady she claims to be. Her carefree demeanor echoed the self-obsessed person who isn't even aware of the ramifications of the rising political situation as well as someone who never seems to make the right decisions. Kahn made Sally appropriately forceful yet charming, easily showing us a woman who gets what she wants, and delivered some of Sally's most famous lines assuredly, including, "Politics? What's that got to do with us?" Kahn also showed us Sally's vulnerability and her singing voice was powerful, including a grounded delivery of the title song.
As the Emcee, Matt Newhard veered away from the overtly sexual nature that Cumming brought to the recent Broadway revival, but also wasn't the somewhat creepy, asexual version that Joel Grey created in the original production and subsequent 1972 film. Instead, Newhard made him an entertainer, here to take his audiences away from the harsh realities that are just outside the doors of the Kit Kat Klub. This simple decision was best achieved in one effective scene where Hock had the Emcee remove his white pancake face make-up and rouged cheeks and we saw the ordinary man underneath the facade. Sure, he prances about the stage, sings like a bird and ogles the ladies in the audience, but Newhard made us see that he is a human, just like the rest of the characters in the play, and dealing with the same obstacles every other person in Germany at the time was facing.
Matt Earnest's take on Cliff was a bit hesitant. Earnest showed a pleasant singing voice and nice line delivery but we didn't quite see from his actions what made him so attractive to the other men mentioned in the show, let alone to Sally, since he wasn't quite sure of himself. A bit more emotion and less of the extra unnecessary busy work, including pacing and hand gestures, that made him seem a bit antsy, would greatly help. Still, overall it was a more than serviceable performance.
Petey Swartz and Ron Jennings were superb as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. We got a sense of warmth and sentiment from them that made their attraction to each other and the richness of their characters realistic. They both also easily made us understand that these two characters had both been alone for so long, it made them a bit hesitant about their budding relationship. Swartz' delivery of her solo "What Would You Do?" was simple, emotional and extremely effective. Schneider is a survivor, yet one easily felt the regret and pain from Swartz' portrayal of Schneider's suffering in her delivery of that song. Hector Coris had a perfect German accent and demeanor as the Nazi sympathizer Ernst Ludwig, instilling just the right amount of charm, with menace beneath the surface.
Overall, Hock's direction was good, with nicely staged dialogue scenes and good use of the expansive Kit Kat Klub space, though some of the larger group scenes, including the "Telephone" number and especially the act one closer, were muddy and not directed, or lit, in a way to easily show who we should be focusing on. Choreographer Bill Hotaling delivered some impressive Kit Kat Klub routines that featured varied dance steps, including a nicely done "Don't Tell Mama" with fine-tuned chair choreography. Rachel Gordon Smallwood's scenic design encompassed a fairly expansive Kit Kat Klub set with a series of stairs and entrance ways, though the wall of the set was placed so far in the back that it was hard to appreciate the details of the design. The small set for Cliff's apartment room and the hallway of the house were appropriately dingy with pealing wallpaper on the walls. However, the numerous set pieces and props used for Cliff's apartment required much more time to move on and off stage, making the scene changes far longer, and noisier, than necessary. Bret G. Reese's lighting was adequate with the book scenes brightly lit, but the night club scenes were a bit too dark. Ken Olash's sound design suffered from some crosstalk and mic issues, problems understandable since this is the first time in the venue. Hopefully, most of the shortcomings in the creative aspects were remedied once the technical team had more performances under their belts to address the issues.
Not quite as dark, or anywhere near as sexual, as the most recent Broadway revival, the Scottsdale Musical Theatre's production of this landmark musical was a nice look back at what shocked audiences almost fifty years ago. Most of the shortcomings of this production were limited to the somewhat watered down aspects of the original play that are still vague in the updated book for the 1987 revival. While it still served as a reminder of how we all can be complacent or in denial about certain issues we feel don't affect us, there was still some hesitation in the direction and acting, and some missteps in the creative elements. However, as being the only theater company in the Phoenix area that relies on the enormous sound that a live twenty-piece orchestra creates, and with their large casts and the added creative benefits of the move to the Tempe Center for the Arts, SMTC seems to have everything lined up for success.
The Scottsdale Musical Theatre Company's production of Cabaret ran from June 27th to the 29th, 2014, with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway. You can get information on their upcoming production of The Producers, which plays from December 31, 2014, to January 3, 2015, at www.scottsdalemusicaltheater.com. Tickets can be ordered by calling 602-909-4215
Directed and Staged by David Hock