I hadn’t seen a production of CABARET since the 1998 Broadway revival at Studio 54 starring the brilliant Alan Cumming as the emcee and the late Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles. I remember walking out of that show with a strange mixture of awe, sadness, and shock. I found myself walking out of last night’s production in Skippack with the same mix of emotions, which is right where any director of CABARET should want its audience.
As the director, David Deratzian, of this production says in his Director’s Notes: “CABARET is really a “play with music” more than it is a “musical” in the traditional sense. I couldn’t agree more. More than any other show, CABARET plays with its audience. With MY FAIR LADY or THE SOUND OF MUSIC, you KNOW how you are supposed to be feeling…happy, joyful, etc.. With CABARET, you are always wondering if you are supposed to be laughing; then when you do laugh, you have the rug pulled out from under you with a shocking moment. As Deratzian puts it, “The show plays dirty tricks on the audience…”. It is truly a roller coaster ride.
CABARET is set in Berlin in 1932. Each production tends to be different, depending on the director. Even before the show begins, you know you are in for something different when the Emcee (Mark Ayers) is putting on his makeup on the stage. The orchestra is set up on the side of the stage looking down on the action. “Willkommen”, led by Ayers at the unbelievably seedy Kit Kat Klub, is appropriately raunchy (what an oxymoron), basically telling the audience in no uncertain terms at the beginning that if you don’t like what you see, you better get out now! Ayers is just wonderful as the Emcee, not afraid to do anything and leaving no holds barred with his movements and facial expressions. This is a far more interactive production of CABARET that I have seen, with Sally Bowles (Erika Strasburg) asking the audience to “Clap for her, darling”. We are introduced to Cliff Bradshaw (Matt Bookler) and Ernst Ludwig (Justin Kalnas) at a train station. Ernst offers Cliff some work and tells him about an inexpensive boardinghouse run by Fr. Schneider (Sue Murphy), where Cliff quickly gets a room after some haggling over the price (“So What?”) We then move back to the Kit Kat Klub for “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr”, led by Sally Bowles and the Kit Kat Klub Girls, dressed in black. Strasburg, as Sally, is simply perfect in the role. “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr” didn’t do her justice, as her beautiful voice was difficult to hear. She is wonderful when acting with Bookler or singing by herself.
Sally soon moves in with Cliff (“Perfectly Marvelous”), but complications soon develop. All of this is happening while the Nazis are coming to power, which is always on the forefront of the action. Case in point…Frau Schneider begins a lovely relationship with Herr Schultz (Gary Bullock), singing about the simplest things in life (such as a pineapple in “It Couldn’t Please Me More”). Because Frau Schneider keeps catching Frau Kost (the sensational Raina Frey Murdock) with a sailor in her boardinghouse, Frau Kost begins to concoct some sinister revenge.
Cliff continues to work for Ernst, only this time we discover that Ernst has a Nazi armband. At Frau Schneider’s and Herr Schultz’s engagement party, Frau Kost tells Ernst that Herr Schultz is a Jew. Act I ends in an extremely uncomfortable way, with “Tomorrow Reprise”, led by Frau Kost and Ernst. The interaction is continued with cast members coming out into the audience to pass out the words to the song and urging them to stand up. This showed how easy it was for people to fall for Nazi propaganda.
Act II continues with comic relief from the Emcee joining in the dances at the Kit Kat Klub. Again, the audience is played with as the kickline seems fun and joyful, then ends with the girls giving a Nazi salute. “If You Could See Her” is always one of the more controversial parts of CABARET (are there any that aren’t?) with the Emcee dancing a lovely dance with a gorilla. The audience is in hysterics. However, the song ends with one of the most shocking lines ever said on the Broadway stage. Cliff finally sees that Sally is never going to change who she is and leaves. Even though she wants a life with Cliff, she can’t figure out a way to be happy and is so scared to change. This brings us to the show’s namesake, “Cabaret”. Strasburg performs it with a perfect mix of sadness and wistfulness and fills the barn with her voice. Her English accent is spot-on (along with Murdock’s German one)…so crisp and matter-of-fact. The finale to CABARET is just unbelievable to me every time I see it, and I was anxious to see how Playcrafters was going to do it. Without giving away the final scene, the audience has just been put through the wringer with this show, and there is one final shock. We began with a happy-go-lucky “Willkommen” (“We have no troubles here.”) to a “Willkommen” where everything and everyone are now in Nazi hands. What does Berlin look like now? Let’s just say everyone is affected, including the orchestra. Deratzian’s choice on how to end this was superb.
CABARET is definitely not for everyone. It is always shocking and can be downright uncomfortable at times. However, Playcrafter’s production is mesmerizing and will leave you with something to think about.
Book by Joe Masteroff
Music byJohn Kander
Lyrics byFred Ebb
Directed by David Deratzian
June 2 – 18, 2011
Playcrafters of Skippack
2011 Store Road