It’s been 11 years since Brett Smock, one of Merry-Go-Round Playhouse’s favorite director-choreographers, staged John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret in Auburn. Eleven years is more than sufficient time to rethink the innovations from that production, some of which are retained, and to enter new interpretations of songs and dance numbers that had looked settled. The results are at turns startling, witty, outrageous, graceful and heartfelt. Cabaret is a show that never asks to be loved, but this production is a crowd-pleaser. More than that, it is significantly different from any other production you’ve ever seen.
Cabaret’s continuing popularity runs astride two paradoxes. First is that such a show with its story of disappointed love, ruined lives, cynicism and moral anathema was ever taken to the bosom of the American public at all. Some of that is explained by the score, wonderfully delivered by musical director Mark Goodman leading a nine-person orchestra. There’s not a dud song in two hours, and all of them maintain fresh appeal.
Second is that a show so fixed in time and place keeps changing each decade. It’s Weimer Berlin, and one scene celebrates New Year’s Eve 1930. In contrast, Curly and Laurey are still the same characters that opened in Oklahoma! in 1943. The main characters in Cabaret, however, appeared 23 years later and are now all refocused. The white-faced Emcee, the naive novelist Clifford, the fey showgirl Sally Bowles, even the lovelorn landlady Fraulein Schneider are no longer identical with the figures who first appeared on Broadway in 1966.
Some of the change has to do with our shifting attitudes toward the Nazi Party, whose emergence is one of the themes of the show. Mel Brooks turned them into comic figures in the two comings of The Producers, and their recent American adherents, like the nutcase who recently shot up the Sikh Temple, remind us that their evil was really, really banal. We also know that the lure of the fascist dream is still very much alive in our society.
Director-choreographer Smock addresses the problem in the “Kickline” ensemble number that opens the second act. The Nazi vision of themselves had already been delivered in the first act with the pseudo-anthem “Tomorrow,” in which fresh-faced blond kids, in contrast to the debauchery of the Kit-Kat Klub, proclaim that the future belongs to them. In the original production the “Kickline” united the Emcee with the most important Kit-Kat girls, some of whom might be guys in drag.
Smock puts the entire male and female chorus on stage in stylized Nazi uniforms, courtesy of costume designer Tiffany Howard. Yes, also, to the distinctive black helmets, chic tunics and black boots but in between the trouserless thighs with net stockings. The dance is a spoofy military drill, but without much of the stiff-legged goose-step. With scarlet gloves they could be a band of lunatic traffic cops. It is both rigid and absurd, yet not comic. The effect is far more menacing than anything in The Producers.
Cabaret now has such a complex production history that it pretty much obliterates what came before. Directors and reviewers, including this one, tended to dote on the story’s complex roots from The Berlin Stories of gay Englishman Christopher Isherwood and their adaptation by another gay Englishman, John Van Druten. Additional ancestors are the theater of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 movie The Blue Angel. Well, forget them. More influential are Joel Grey, Liz Minnelli and Bob Fosse from the 1972 movie. But Smock wants you to forget them, too.
Grey’s Emcee was famously ambiguous and insinuating, and he tended to hog the spotlight. Not content with that, British director Sam Mendes transformed the character into a highly sexualized figure in the person of scantily clad Alan Cumming, who brought this personification to New York City in 1998.
Under Smock’s hand, Josh Walden’s Emcee is both less and more. The white makeup is more sparing, and the intrusions more ironic and less disruptive. “Sitting Pretty,” the first act’s song about money, now has the chorus dressed like the gnomes of Zurich, and the sequel on different currencies has been deleted. Walden’s several appearances are never less than startling, but he never tries to make it appear that Cabaret is about him.
When John Van Druten dramatized Berlin Stories as I Am a Camera, he came up with a Sally Bowles who was shy and self-deceiving, dramatically rich enough to win Julie Harris a Tony Award when she played the role on stage. That conception was pretty much obliterated when song-belter Liza Minnelli took the role in Bob Fosse’s movie version.
In casting Paige Faure as Sally, Smock has acquired the sweet face of an innocent, with her projected vulnerability displacing the brass. This does not mean Sally’s big number will become a lullaby. Faure comes with the required big voice, but with her falling cadences later in the song, emotion clouding her bravado, she evokes not so much Liza but rather her mother, Judy Garland.
American popular audiences probably demanded that writer Clifford Bradshaw from rural Pennsylvania be straight, regardless of the source material or even as he was played (under another name) in Bob Fosse’s movie. In taking that role Mick Bleyer puts blood in Clifford’s veins as well as allowing him a brain, even though he seems never to have read a newspaper. Bleyer’s duet with Faure’s Sally in “Perfectly Marvelous” projects much charm, just as his solo “Why Should I Wake Up?” gives the character heart.
Although Smock is not the first director to do so, he gives more prominence than we’re used to to the failed romance between the senior-citizen second leads, Gentile landlady Fraulein Schneider (Sandra Karas) and Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Joel Briel). Schultz is sweetly comic and benign but hampered by the deletion of his first-act solo “Meeskite,” a Yiddish novelty song meant to annoy the Nazi agent Ernst Ludwig (Ryan Speakman). Karas and Briel’s duet “Marriage,” filled with mutual acceptance, contrasts with the volatility of Clifford and Sally’s relationship. A combination of Smock’s direction with the agreeable persona of Karas (long a company favorite at MGR) gives moral weight to Fraulein Schneider’s resigned lament at the crushing of her only chance for love, “What Would You Do?”
One remaining scene-stealer must be mentioned, even though she sings only when she stands with the Nazis in the pseudo-anthem, “Tomorrow.” That’s bosomy Kristy Cates as the bad girl Fraulein Kost, a money-grasping tart with a bedroom full of sailor relatives. She brings a commanding presence.
Scenic designer Czerton Lim comes up with one of those balconies Smock likes. And Dan Ozminkowski’s lighting design keeps the Emcee’s behind-the-scrim shenanigans from getting too specific.
Kander and Ebb’s score for Cabaret remains one of their most
vital. At the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse we can enjoy anew with new faces
and fresh interpretation.
This production runs through Sept. 8. See Times Table for information.