It’s enough that Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin,
on which the show is based, reminds us that the decay and corruption of
Weimar Germany led to the rise of Nazism. Here we flash-forward to
images of the death camps, with victims bearing yellow stars and pink
Witanowski signals early that he knows much of the visual imagery in Cabaret comes from the cinema. The lowlife Kit Kat Club borrows substantially from Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930),
except that the girls seen here are prettier and thinner (who’s
complaining?).To recreate some of the feeling of Expressionism in
Berlin of the Weimar Republic, Witanowski has worked with set designer
Navroz Dabu to recreate the skewed windows and doorways found in such
items at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). The much-admired
Dabu was injured badly in an automobile accident before the set was
completed to his specifications, which means that what we see is even
bleaker than intended.
In thinking of the characters in Cabaret, it’s often
difficult to separate them from well-known performers who have played
them before, especially in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version, but we have
to. Fosse, we regret to report, has been dead some time now, and his
conceptions no longer rule, just as Yul Brynner no longer owns the King
of Siam, who is now played with a full head of hair.
Clifford Bradshaw (Rob Fonda) is a white-bread aspiring American
novelist from Pennsylvania who has come to Berlin circa 1931 to live,
while starting his manuscript, mainly because it’s cheap. He lives in a
low-rent apartment run by lonely, middle-aged Fraulein Schneider (Susan
Blumer), who keeps company with a sweet-natured fruit vendor, Herr
Schultz (Bill Molesky). Another tenant, Fraulein Kost (Bethany
Daniluk), entertains sailors in her room for short periods. On the
train into Berlin Clifford meets the ambiguous Ernst Ludwig (Witanowski
himself), who recommends the writer visit the Kit Kat Club for a little
naughty escapism. While there Clifford encounters a fey young English
girl, Sally Bowles (Danielle Lovier), who seems to be living on a
precipice. Later Ernst will ask Clifford to take advantage of his
American passport by smuggling in small packages from Paris for an
unnamed “good cause.”
Then there’s the most iconic character in the show, the white-faced
Emcee (Garrett Heater): amoral, cynical, ingratiating and insinuating.
Of all the things that go right (not everything) in director
Witanowski’s reinterpretation, Heater’s Emcee is the most satisfying.
Long known as a light comedian, Heater brings a kind of jack-in-the-box
quality of surprise, inserting himself suddenly when you don’t want to
see him. He’s also nastier than many previous Emcees, as in the mordant
“If You Could See Her As I Do,” with Danielle Nash in a gorilla mask.
Better still are Heater’s powers as a chameleon that allow him to slip
into a series of unexpected characterizations. With shapely, shaven
legs that kick high, there’s a moment where you can’t tell him apart
from the girls.
A much greater risk is the characterization of Sally Bowles, from
which the iron-lunged showgirl of Liza Minnelli has been banished. In
the pre-musical version of the story, John Van Druten’s adaptation of
Isherwood known as I Am a Camera (on stage 1953, film 1955) the
great Julie Harris portrayed Sally as vulnerable if plucky, and both
childlike and self-deceiving. At her entrance Danielle Lovier’s Sally
looks like a debauched baby, or a live illustration from Lewis
Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, but with smeared lipstick. This is meant to shock, and it does.
Lovier won much applause locally while still in high school, as well as a scholarship from the Syracuse New Times
Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) organization. Still an undergraduate
at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, Lovier is a younger,
therefore more tragic, Sally than we’re used to seeing. Her commitment
to Witanowki’s vision passes the test early on when she bravely quaffs
a “prairie oyster” containing a freshly cracked raw egg (ugh!). That
vision follows Isherwood’s original stories in which Sally is not
really the writer’s love interest but rather an incarnation of a doomed
Vocal pyrotechnics do not come in Lovier’s repertory, and some of
her early numbers are disappointing, but she saves everything up for
the finale, the title song, “Cabaret,” with bravado merging into tears.
Not only is hers moving where others have been simply brassy, but it
grows out of a coherent understanding of the character.
The only real romance in Cabaret is also doomed, that of the
gentile Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, who turns out to be
Jewish, even as he proclaims himself a real German. Bill Molesky mines
gold out of lines meant to be heavily, dreadfully ironic, and genuinely
seems to be in love with Susan Blumer’s Schneider. Last seen as a comic
mother and son in Simply New Theater’s James Joyce’s The Dead, they
know well how to play off each other. Blumer projects that her less
sympathetic character understands the depth of her loss.
Bethany Daniluk uses excellent vocals to portray a more
three-dimensional Fraulein Kost than we’re used to seeing. David
Witanowski’s brusque Ludwig still startles us with what he’s about,
even when we know what’s coming.
Despite the Kit Kat Club’s louche reputation, it boasts an on-stage
orchestra in formal wear, led by Bridget Moriarty, which emphasizes the
links to Kurt Weill in John Kander’s score. Judy Bova’s disciplined
choreography factors in the naughtiness, especially “Two Ladies,” with
Julia Berger and David Cotter.
Wit’s End Players’ credibility among local companies can be seen in
the casting of the chorus, which includes SALT Award winner Jimmy
Curtin, and SALT nominees Julia Berger and Chad Healy. Others with
prominent speaking and singing roles include Andrea Colabufo, Danielle
Nash, Maggie Osinski, Kaleigh Pfohl, Chloe Tiso and Daniel LaCombe. As
the Emcee says, they are all beautiful. But they’re all doomed to enter
the most horrifying epoch of the 20th century, as this production never
wants us to forget.
This production runs through July 3. See Times Table for information.