In 1966, book writer Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb created the Broadway musical Cabaret. They based the show on both Christopher Isherwood's 1939 novel "Goodbye to Berlin" that told stories of his time living in Berlin around 1930 and John Van Druten's 1951 theatrical adaptation of the novel, I Am a Camera. Cabaret, set in 1931, plays out against scenes set inside the gritty, decadent Berlin nightclub the Kit Kat Klub, with a mischievous Emcee overseeing the proceedings of its carefree customers while Hitler's rise to power is happening just outside its doors. American novelist Clifford Bradshaw has arrived in Berlin to begin work on his novel. The desperate and recently homeless English Kit Kat Klub headliner Sally Bowles convinces Cliff to let her move in with him, even though they have just met, and they set about forming an interesting living relationship. Cliff's sweet natured landlady, the German Fräulein Schneider, forms a relationship of her own with the adorably charming Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz. And, even though Sally believes that they have nothing to worry about, and lives her life like it is a never ending cabaret, the rising Nazi regime is about to change everyone's life in Berlin and the world is about to come crashing down in ways no one could possibly imagine.
The updated version of Cabaret more fully incorporates the Emcee into the action of the play to help comment and better focus the atrocities that await the characters. It also stunningly shows how the horrors that are about to come and the desperation of the era culminate in people unable to comprehend the consequence of just what Hitler's power will have on Germany and ultimately the whole world. The extremely intimate theatre in the round stage at Desert Stages is a perfect venue for Cabaret. Not only does it serve well in bringing the scenes set in the smoky dark nightclub setting of the Kit Kat Klub vibrantly to life, but the intimacy of the space works wonders in getting across the emotional aspects of the story. With scenes involving Nazism, characters sporting swastikas and shouts of "Heil!" happening just a few feet in front of you are shocking events that will resonate with you and that you won't quickly forget.
Director Jean-Paoul C. Clemente uses every possible entrance and exit of the space to effectively make us feel as if we are audience members in the club as well as quickly and seamlessly move us from the Kit Kat Klub scenes to the scenes set inside Schneider's boarding house. Clemente also draws refined performances from his cast that quickly establish each character. Jennifer Lee White easily gets across the carefree attitude that Sally has, as well as her self-obsessed nature. While she is somewhat distracting to Cliff's writing of his novel, we also see how she is a unique creature and how she also inspires him. Sally isn't supposed to be a very good singer; she is singing in a run-down nightclub after all, but White bring a nice power and presence to her songs.
Having made a great impression as Henry Higgins in the recent Phoenix Symphony Orchestra/Phoenix Theatre concert production of My Fair Lady, Terry Gadaire is absolutely fearless as the Emcee. He commands the stage, draws attention and has a booming voice that he uses to great effect for his many songs. His take on the Emcee's upbeat songs are flawless, while his interpretation of the ballad "I Don't Care Much" is emotional and stunning, as is his final scene in the show. Clay Sanderson gives Cliff a feeling of hesitancy about the new characters he encounters but also instills a sense of sincerity and recklessness in his dealings with Sally. He has a strength and charm that makes it easy to see why Sally and one of the male dancers at the club are romantically interested in him. His solo song "Don't Go" is delivered with a deep sense of pleading that helps us see how important Sally is to Cliff.
Shari Watts, who was superb as the out of control, pill popping matriarch in Mesa Encore Theatre's August: Osage County earlier this year, is just as effective as Fräulein Schneider. She is warm and realistic in her portrayal of this woman who knows how to survive, whatever the circumstances. When she makes a decision in the second act, which is laid out in her solo "What Would You Do?," it is especially riveting in the emotion and amount of suffering, pain and regret Watts manages to instill in that one moment. Harold LeBoyer is charming as the Jewish Shultz, yet also brings a deep sense of sadness to this man, who, much like Sally, thinks he'll be fine with everything that is going on, just because he is German. Timothy Pittman is charming at first as Cliff's new friend in Berlin, Ernst Ludwig, yet deeply chilling once we see the true feelings of this Nazi sympathizer.
Clemente makes several nice directorial choices including having Ernst start to sing, then speak and finally end up shouting the lyrics of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," making it eerily reminiscent of Hitler giving one of his speeches. The musical doesn't have an overture, so Clemente has added a short musical segment that has the entire ensemble singing a slowed down version of the title song that beckons all of us to "come to the cabaret." Clemente also choreographed the show with Katy Callie and there are some satisfying touches throughout, such as a bit of a waltz for Cliff and Schneider during the act one song "So What" and having the Kit Kat girls kick line number include Nazi storm trooper inspired movements with one arm raised in a "Heil!" stance. Some of the ensemble members aren't exactly in sync with the various dance steps, but I'm not sure if that was intentional or simply due to lack of rehearsal. However, it actually works splendidly for the show and makes the dancers at the Kit Kat Klub seem as run down and out of sorts as the club itself.
Creative elements are extremely effective. Paul Filan's set design, with painted buildings and bended mirrors on the surrounding walls, smoke continually filling the air, and the combination of Lindsey Ihrig's superb, evocative lighting and Tamara Treat's expressive costumes give the Kit Kat Klub scenes a resemblance of a sultry, seedy, run down leather bar or S&M club. But the design just as quickly becomes the bright, sunny rooms of Schneider's boarding room house. Filan uses small rolling tables that are easily reconfigured to represent just about every required piece of furniture in the show. However, the lack of any physical doors in the design does make a few plot points, such as Schultz being caught coming out of Schneider's room, confusing or nonexistent. Treat's costumes that combine leather boots, corsets and fishnet stockings do make the Emcee look like he could just as easily play "Frank 'N' Furter" in a production of The Rocky Horror Show, but the combination of colors and fabrics work, as do the creative hair and make-up designs. The ones for Sally make her resemble a beaten down Ava Gardner.
Cabaret at Desert Stages Theatre is dark, raunchy and shocking, yet has an immediacy through the raw emotions of the story and how identifiable the situations and circumstances of the characters are and the horrors that await them. While it may not be every theatregoer's cup of tea, especially those who prefer more traditional G rated shows like The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady, with excellent creative elements and an inspired performance by Terry Gadaire as the Emcee, this production is highly recommended.
For this show, DST has added special VIP table seating on the two raised balconies that gives an interesting view of the proceedings and also comes with chocolates and a bottle of sparkling cider or water.
The Desert Stages Theatre production of Cabaret runs through August 10th, 2014, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at www.DesertStages.org or by phone at (480) 483-1664.
Director/Co-Choreographer: Jean-Paoul C. Clemente