Taken on its own terms, Ordway Center’s production of Cabaret is dazzling. The full resources of the theater, both financial and technical, are on vivid display in the physical production, from the Emcee’s first entrance, descending on an illuminated sign, to his swinging out over the audience with a gorilla.
But I couldn’t get past the persistently nagging feeling that all this glitz and glamour was, in reality, antithetical to the original story. In 1930s Berlin, Sally Bowles, a singer at the Kit Kat Club, romances American writer Cliff Bradshaw on the verge of the Nazi takeover of Germany. From its beginnings in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and the play I Am a Camera by John van Druten, the story has emphasized the seedy decadence of Weimar Germany. Kander and Ebb's musical version maintains the dark sleaziness of the original source material, but that tawdriness is nowhere to be seen on the Ordway stage.
Ordway producing artistic director James Rocco makes the case for the production’s historical accuracy by referencing University of Minnesota professor Eric D. Weitz’s New York Times bestseller, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. According to Rocco, “What this research reveals is that the look and feel of Weimar Berlin cabarets and nightclubs were not all that different from night spots in New York, London, and Paris during the same period.” The Ordway’s production focuses on the glittering cabarets that Hitler kept open to fool an unknowing nation of citizens who continued to party while Berlin was burning. Such high-class establishments obviously existed. But would a garish character, such as Sally Bowles, have worked in one? And if she did, wouldn’t she have earned enough to pay for her own lodgings rather than having to crash with Cliff pleading poverty?
The production team seems to have overlooked these logical flaws in their zeal to create a magnificently opulent set. And, frankly, all such concerns are swept aside by the strong energy and staging of this show.
The revisions to Joe Masteroff’s original book go uncredited, but they are delicious. Adding the conceit of Brechtian conventions is smart and helpful in the staging while also being an appropriate evocation of the period. The emphasis on homosexuality further evokes the liberated attitudes of that age and hearkens back to the Isherwood original.
Bill Berry’s direction is glitzy, but it’s glitz with substance. He finds the abundant humanity as well as the horror in this dark show, especially as the Nazi influence becomes increasingly omnipresent. And there are plenty of clever bits and touches that will surprise even those who have seen several other versions of Cabaret. For example, the “girls” of the orchestra are played by men in elaborate hag drag, and Bob Richard’s choreography in the dancing chorus is splendidly fresh and energetic.
There is nothing subtle about the staging; it is a broad, no-holds-barred spectacle from beginning to end, including the portrayals of the individual characters. That over-the-top mania works perfectly for the Emcee (Nick Garrison), who is outrageous but pulls it off by capturing the period’s decadence. Tari Kelly’s Sally is somewhat less successful. Her performance is too loud and brassy and would have benefited from a little delicacy here and there. That said, her performance of “Maybe This Time” rivaled even Liza’s from the film.
Next to the Emcee, the strongest performance is Suzy Hunt as Fräulein Schneider, Cliff and Sally’s landlady. She became the emotional heart of the production and made the most of her two songs (cut from the film), “So What,” a statement of her fatalistic philosophy, and “What Would You Do?” a painful justification of her decision to break off her engagement to the Jewish Herr Schultz. Her lacerating performance truly raised the show to the level of tragedy. Allen Fitzpatrick’s Schultz was not in her league, but his sweet naiveté proved endearing.
In that company, Louis Hobson, as the very “nice” Cliff, made little impression. He is ostensibly the lead character, but the role is so pallid and underwritten that it’s not his fault that he receded into the background. He is at his best when singing and has a strong baritone that enlivened even his mediocre songs.
One of the most exciting elements of this production is that it is a coproduction of the Ordway, Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, and the American Musical Theatre of San Jose. Opera companies discovered years ago that coproductions are essential for survival, but it’s a relatively new concept for nonprofit theaters. More such coproductions are in the works, which speaks to the Ordway’s excellent stewardship of its resources.
Cabaret continues at Ordway Center through May 18.