Regional Reviews: Boston
Cabaret was revolutionary when it premiered on Broadway in 1966, just two decades after World War II ended. The book by Joe Masteroff and songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb were provocative for their generation, but over the years, the musical has been repeatedly revised and reimagined. The version playing at Moonbox comes from the 1998 Broadway revival, directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall. In addition to dropping songs and adding in better-known numbers from the Bob Fosse-directed film, this Cabaret made the Kit Kat Klub even seedier and more highly sexualized.
In director Rachel Bertone's hands at Moonbox, the Kit Kat Klub milieu is appropriately raunchy, but she keeps the party atmosphere tantalizing rather than tasteless. Janie E. Howland's Klub set has its rough edges, like a few burnt-out bulbs, yet the overall effect is elegantly expressionistic, with walls at sharp angles and chandeliers poised in mid-swing above. Marian Bertone's costumes capture the same feel; the ladies' crinoline skirts lined with pink bows for "Don't Tell Mama" are especially cheeky. And the eight-person band, led by Dan Rodriguez, really swings. As the program notes, clubs like this provided a social space for queer and LGBT Berliners to feel safe to be themselves. While the cabaret invites us to come celebrate with abandon, it's also a place where social outcasts can feel welcome.
Aimee Doherty, giving a confident performance as the enchanting Sally Bowles, embodies this duality in the title song. Her Sally is a calculating woman who seems aware everything she does is for show. Left alone on stage to sing "Cabaret," we notice the first real crack in Sally's madcap facade. She looks like she might break down during the number, but her delivery is ultimately triumphant, belting her final lyrics with defiance. The cabaret, she has realized, is the only life for her, and this is where she belongs.
Bertone's production opens with another of these outcasts: a man slamming a door and crouching in fear. He slowly takes center stage and, before our eyes, transforms into our Emcee for the evening, the hedonistic host welcoming us to the final days of Weimar Germany. This seductive ringleader is both the devil and angel on our shoulders, eerily miming Hitler's rousing speeches in one scene, only to become a victim of persecution at the end. Stepping into the Emcee's suspenders and bedazzled jacket, Phil Tayler hews unusually close to the familiar template of Alan Cumming's performance in the role. His vocal inflections and line readings often feel like an uncanny impersonation of Cumming, whose stamp is all over the Emcee we see. To his credit, Tayler brims with impish energy, throwing himself physically, even maniacally, into the role. But his performance gives the feeling we've seen the show this way before. So, too, do other aspects of the Klub, including the chairs for Sally's "Mein Herr" performance.
It's outside the Kit Kat Klub where Bertone's production feels freshest. Cliff Bradshaw, the American novelist and Christopher Isherwood stand-in, is written more as an observer than an active participant in the drama. Jared Troilo makes Cliff's journey compelling, maturing from a soft-spoken traveler to a man awakened to the horrors to come and disgusted with his own complicity. The courtship between landlady Fräulein Schneider (Maryann Zschau) and fruit seller Herr Schultz (Ray O'Hare) has a welcome sweetness, especially in their improvised dance over Schultz's gift of a pineapple. Later, Zschau is affecting as she sings "What Would You Do?," Schneider's anthem to soldiering on and weathering the storm. Her Schneider is foremost a practical woman, disturbed by the rise of the Nazis but resigned to staying put and enduring.
Bertone smartly suggests these characters' fates, rather than making them overly explicit. In the final scenes, we watch as the safety of the Kit Kat Klub vanishes in front of us and hear our main characters' voices played back, where their lines about letting things blow over now ring hollow. I won't spoil the moving final image. Suffice to say, Moonbox's Cabaret ends powerfully, reminding us how quickly everything can change while we look the other way.
Cabaret, April 29, 2018, by Moonbox Productions at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston MA. Tickets can be purchased at bostontheatrescene.com or by phone at (617) 933-8600.
Cast: Emcee (Phil Tayler); Sally Bowles (Aimee Doherty); Clifford Bradshaw (Jared Troilo); Fräulein Schneider (Maryann Zschau); Herr Schultz (Ray O'Hare); Fräulein Kost/Fritzie (Joy Clark); Ernst Ludwig (Dan Prior); Max (Daniel Forest Sullivan); Rosie/Gorilla (Katrina Pavao); Lulu (Caroline Workman); Texas (Tracy Sokat); Helga (Kimberly Fife); Bobby (Brad Foster Reinking); Victor/Rudy (David Alea); Herman/Officer (Brian-Barry Pereira).
Creative Team: Sharman Altshuler (Producer); Rachel Bertone (Director/Choreographer); Dan Rodriguez (Music Director); Nicky Carbone (Stage Manager); Rebecca Snyder (Assistant Director); Janie E. Howland (Set Design); Sam Biondolillo (Lighting Design); Marian Bertone (Costume Design); David Wilson (Sound Design); David Lucey (Wardrobe Supervisor); Jo Williams (Production Manager); Sean Watkins (Assistant Stage Manager).