Cabaret is not a feel-good musical. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Joe Masteroff based on the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten (which was itself based on stories by Christopher Isherwood), the show is set in Berlin in 1931. Germany, like the rest of the world, was circling the drain of the Great Depression, but was also enduring the tumultuous end years of the Weimar Republic, with hyperinflation, massive unemployment, and civil and cultural unrest – all of which paved the way for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, starting with the elections of 1932. Despite a dazzling score, Cabaret is a depressing story of desperate people struggling amid the gathering forces of fascism. At the end, the audience realizes that most of the characters are destined not for happily-ever-after but rather for a nasty, brutish – and probably brief – life.
When the show premiered in 1966, the horror of World War II and the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews was still only 20-some years in the past. Some of the actors had first-hand knowledge of the types of atrocities their characters would endure: Lotte Lenya, who created the role of Fraulein Schneider, had herself fled the Nazis in the 1930s, while Jack Gilford, the original Herr Schultz, was blacklisted during the Red scare of the 1950s, when he and his actress wife found it difficult to find work, and often had to borrow money from friends to make ends meet.
We’re now more than fifty years on, and most of the original cast is long dead – not Joel Grey and Peg Murray, though, who both won Tonys for the show – but, dispiritingly, Cabaret has become even more timely in 2018, as the United States under Donald Trump and his Republican Party henchmen hurtles toward authoritarianism. Director Michael Matthews and a fine cast have ensured that we see Cabaret as a compellingly modern musical for the 21st Century.
Before one can say “Gesundheit” – or “Achtung!” – Cliff heads for the Kit Kat Club, and we’re off.
As with every show at Celebration, the acting is solid throughout; and as with every musical at Celebration, so is the singing and dancing. Musical director Anthony Zediker and choreographer Janet Roston ably collaborate with Mr. Matthews and the cast to create rousing musical numbers which delight and surprise. Equally fine are the costumes (Michael Mullen), set (Stephen Gifford), and lights (Matthew Brian Denman).
Most successful musicals have what I’ve come to call a “transcendent moment” – that point where the audience’s hearts grow full, eyes grow moist, and throats grow lumps, as the characters onstage experience an epiphany, achieve a goal, or “find their way.” Even that paean to rudeness, The Book of Mormon, has such a transcendent moment – but not Cabaret. It’s hard-edged and dry-eyed from beginning to end, and thankfully Mr. Matthews and his cohorts have resisted the urge to soften it at all. We’re living in a hard-edged time right now, and this Cabaret – alas – fits extraordinarily well.
Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Michael Matthews
Through July 15
Celebration Theatre @ The Lex
6760 Lexington Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: 323-957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com