Although it doesn’t have enough emotional depth, this Cabaret is dazzling in many ways.
Cabaret is about Clifford Bradshaw, a young American novelist who arrives in Berlin on New Year’s Eve, 1931. Although he’s had sex with men and is conflicted about his orientation, he quickly falls into an affair with Sally Bowles, a British singer who works at the Kit Kat Club. Unlike the 1972 movie, the stage musical also contains a subplot about a romance between Cliff’s landlady Fraülein Schneider and a Jewish tenant named Schultz.
In his directorial debut, Josh Epstein gleefully stuffs Studio 58 with so much action and imagery—with so many theatrical ideas—it’s like he’s fisting the place (and the place is digging it.) Ten minutes before the show had even started, I was already getting goosebumps of delight. The boys and girls of the Kit Kat Club were parading around in the sexy, gender-screwing costumes provided by Amy McDougall. (I really want a pair of those rhinestoned short shorts.) And I love the little pre-show shows that Epstein has thrown in: a striptease performed by a voluptuous nurse, and a boxing match between a couple of flexing young studs.
When the show proper started with “Wilkommen”, which is performed by the Emcee and the company, my heart rate ramped up even further. For starters, the Emcee is played by Paige Fraser. Given the iconic nature of Joel Grey’s performance in the original production and the movie, it was an inspired choice to cast a woman—and what a woman she is: powerful, saucy, insinuating—and ultimately heartbreaking—Fraser owns the role. Vocally, she delivers the most assured work of the evening.
In “Wilkommen” and in all of the big musical numbers, choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt also emerges as a star of this interpretation. There’s often a lot going on in her choreography—dancers on ladders and dancers on chairs; dancers on the floor, spinning and stomping—but it’s never chaotic. It’s always precise—like in “Mein Herr” the way that one or two of the boys at a time spark into action to embody musical punctuations. And it’s inventive: in “Money Makes the World Go Round”, two groups of dancers—they feel like packs—circle the Emcee, who’s sitting on top of a piano that’s also spinning (and being played live).
Itai Erdal’s lighting is constantly in motion, often dramatic but never intrusive. And Drew Facey’s set is imposingly elemental: mostly just the single word KABARETT spelled out in massive letters spangled with marquee lights. It’s functional too: the letters B and R act as doors.
Let me say another couple of words about McDougall’s costumes—well, one part of one costume in particular. In “Don’t Tell Mama”, Sally wears a lacey cream number that pretends to look chaste with its little-girl hood, but it’s actually seductively revealing. And the bra on that thing—a dreamy combination of straps and shimmer—is like a hymn.
Under Christopher King’s musical direction, the band is raucous but tight, and Epstein fills the entire space—not just the stage but often the aisles of the theatre, too. He has performers climbing the walls and leaping onto tabletops.
But here’s the thing: the level of attack gets relentless, especially in Act 1. Because the razzle-dazzle virtually never lets up, it gets boring.
And, in between the musical numbers, the dramatic scenes are often less than satisfying. Dylan Floyde, who’s playing Cliff, hollers pretty much non-stop, wasting his stage time. Erin Palm does much better as Sally, but she shows us almost nothing of the character’s vulnerability so, by the time Sally started falling apart in Act 2, I had no idea who she was. Palm can sing, but I worried about her voice, which sounded like it was starting to shred on opening night.
Schneider, the landlady, is an older character and, even though she acts tough, she too is vulnerable—but both age and vulnerability are virtually invisible in Julia Munčs’s portrait.
Moe Golkar, who plays Schneider’s love interest Schultz, provides a welcome oasis of subtlety. At Schneider and Schultz’s engagement party, a Nazi named Ernst dehumanizes the Jewish groom-to-be by yelling, “He is not a German!” The animal look of innocent bafflement that crosses Schultz’s face is one of the most resonant images in the production for me.
In Act 2, the material gets darker as the Nazis continue their rise to power and this production acquires more nuance.
Throughout, Epstein’s staging is inventive. To introduce the first dramatic scene, the Emcee blows a train whistle and we see Cliff and Ernst in a train car. When Schneider and Shultz sing the tender duet “Marriage”, the Emcee climbs a ladder and spins a mirror ball by hand to shower them with light.
And, especially given the current state of the world, Epstein’s final set of images is devastating. I won’t give away the last stage picture, but I will say this: let the audience do the crying. Sometimes less really is more.
CABARET Book by Joe Masteroff. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood. Directed by Josh Epstein. A Studio 58 production at Studio 58 on Saturday, February 2. Continues until February 24.Tickets.
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