City Stage’s production of Kander & Ebb’s masterpiece “Cabaret” on the Main Stage of Thalian Hall is a stunning way to welcome the new year. Based upon Christopher Isherwood’s novel, “Goodbye to Berlin,” Cabaret chronicles the experiences of Cliff Bradshaw (Sam Robinson), a young ex-pat, would-be novelist living in Germany on the eve of World War II. He finds himself wrapped up in the world of his boarding house and the Kit Kat Klub, which features a Marlene Dietrich wannabe named Sally Bowels (Katherine Vernon). Bradshaw is fascinated by the licentious freedom of the cabaret and its denizens, and its contrast to the swirling politics of the time.
I enjoy the work of directors who realize theatre is a visual medium, and the text is the guide for bringing out a story. Judy Greenhut exemplifies this. Utilizing a very simple, yet evocative set, designed by Terry Collins, Greenhut’s ensemble creates the world that overwhelms Cliff Bradshaw. Drawing heavily upon her dance and choreography skills, Greenhut really directs for the unspoken undercurrents of the story and brings it fully into realization. She creates a world where her performers flourish.
The role of Emcee comes with high expectations—from Joel Gray’s Tony- and Academy Award-winning performances to Alan Cumming’s much-heralded Tony-winning revival. It is a coveted role. Jason Aycock does not play Joel Grey and he does not play Alan Cumming. Though there are nods to both—more to Grey—Aycock puts his own twist on the character. In “Wilkommen” Aycock shows us his Emcee: classier perhaps than may be expected, but also sinister and distressing, with phenomenal dance skills and mischievous humor. Yet, his rendition of “If You Could See Her” (known to most from the film as “The Gorilla Song”) perhaps shows the range of Aycock’s subtlety and subterfuge in the role.
Debra Gillingham and Richard Bunting as ill-fated lovers Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are too lovely to be described. Both consummate performers with strong voices and good dancing; they bring a reality check to the other-worldly responsibility-shirking lives of Cliff and Sally. Their tender declarations of growing love in “It Couldn’t Please Me More” provide a very real counterpoint to mournful “What Would You Do?” in Act II. The work they do together makes the price of admission worth it.
Sam Robison and Katherine Vernon as Cliff Bradshaw and Sally Bowles make an interesting choice for the script—both talented performers who I love to see onstage. Vernon’s singing voice knocks the big “Cabaret” number out of the park. During my visit, she got a well-deserved, show-stopping applause, complete with a “bravo” called out from the balcony. It’s incredible to watch Robison’s slow-dawning realization that he can’t save anything—the world, this beautiful fragile creature he has fallen in love with and, most frightening of all, not even himself. His well-paced nuance remains completely believable.
Choosing to cast an older leading couple for the 19-year-old Sally and early 20s Bradshaw changes the relationship and the story. The dynamic works but instead of depending on the headlong world of absolutes that the young live in, these two have experiences that tell them there will be other people and other options. When Bradshaw asks Bowles to stay, it’s not the desperation of young man in love for the first time, who believes nothing like this can ever happen again. Instead, it becomes the desperation of a man who has been here too many times before. It’s clear he wants a different outcome with this incredible woman, and that makes it more bittersweet. It’s more evocative and tragic than the young discovering their invincibility. I wanted to fight for each of them to make changes in their lives—a change that Robinson’s Bradshaw truly hopes their baby will be for them both.
Chiaki Ito’s band is rockin’ the all-night party in this show. The wonderful live music combines the fabulous dancing of the Kit Kat Klub girls and boys to recreate a shindig that only grows better with the subtle fog of nostalgia.
Dramatic irony as a theatrical technique has been used since the Greeks; though Shakespeare probably perfected it as we think of it in a modern context. The script for “Cabaret” has one of the most unsettling uses of dramatic irony since Oedipus Rex: The audience knows what some of the characters onstage suspect and others deny, i.e. the Holocaust and its outcome around the corner. We know what will happen to these people, and many more just like them. As German Herr Schultz proclaims that all of this will pass, we the audience know how forcefully his illusions will be shattered before his life is taken. If anything the message of “Cabaret” is not one that is dated. From the seamless transition of Berlin’s 24-hour party life at Bradshaw’s arrival into the literally step-by-step rise of Nazism—which the script and Greenhut beautifully demonstrate as happening so easily then or now—“Cabaret” uses a very specific time in history to discuss concerns as valid today as they were 80 years ago. The party, the distraction—we must look beyond it and be engaged in the real world, not as Robison so heartbreakingly reminds us: to be “dancing with Sally Bowles, and we were both fast asleep.”
DETAILS: Cabaret Jan. 2-5, 9-11, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $25 Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St. (910)632-2285 www.thalianhall.org