“Cabaret” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

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.

Talisa Friedman (C) and the ensemble. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

When entering the theatre, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s recovering from a fire: the haze is so thick you wonder if you’ll be able to see the characters when the show officially starts. It’s already started, of course, for the Celebration stage also serves as the stage of the Kit Kat Club, the seedy nightspot where scantily-clad girls and boys roam among the tables and cavort to music by an orchestra, which – like everything else at the Kit Kat Club – is beautiful. Or so says the Emcee (Alex Nee), a leering, sneering master of ceremonies in makeup, tattoos, and a costume which looks as if it’s been shredded by angry audience members. He introduces us to the Kit Kat girls (Jasmine Ejan, Sarah Mullis, Nicole Stouffer, and Mary Ann Welshans) and boys (Tristan McIntyre and Tanner Rampton), as well as the club’s headliner, Sally Bowles (Talisa Friedman).

Alex Nee (C) and the ensemble. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

In the larger world outside the club, American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Christopher Maikish) travels to Berlin to work on a novel, and on the train meets Ernst Ludwig (John Colella), a gregarious German who offers Cliff work, and refers him to a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (June Carryl), where Cliff bargains his way into renting a room. Among the other residents are Herr Schultz (Matthew Henerson), an older man who runs a fruit store, and Fraulein Kost (Katherine Tokarz), a shady lady with a penchant for entertaining sailors in her room.

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).

Talisa Friedman (C) and the ensemble. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

“I love this town. It’s so tawdry and terrible,” says Cliff at one point. And he’s right about the tawdriness and the terribleness. Cabaret is one of those rare musicals wherein all the characters are horrid: Sally is a narcissistic baby, Ernst a Nazi thug, Kost a Nazi sympathizer, Schneider a timid scaredy-cat, Schultz a self-deluding victim, and the girls and boys of the Kit Kat Club are painted as mindless hedonists. Only Cliff seems to have a shred of decency, but even he cravenly accepts the largesse of his family in the States in order to underwrite his bohemian existence in the German capital.

Alex Nee (C) and the ensemble. Photo: Matthew Brian Denman

And then there’s the enigmatic Emcee, who at times appears to be the most amoral and mischievous of the bunch, but who also functions as the conscience and soul, if you will, of the show. If there’s a standout in the cast, it’s Mr. Nee, whose burning eyes and slinky presence insinuate themselves into the audience’s consciousness whenever he’s onstage. With ferocious energy, he belts out his numbers, but perhaps the most haunting moments are when he himself falls silent – mouth agape as if it’s the horn of an old-time Victrola, but also as in a rictus of terror and agony – as recorded horrors assail our ears. Mr. Nee’s performance doesn’t ask us to like him, only to listen to him – and that’s just what’s needed here.

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


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