As unhappy endings go it would be tough to match, never mind top, Cabaret. Depicting, as it does, Berlin in 1931 as the Nazi party is gaining power, the musical is, necessarily, deeply fatalistic—even nihilistic. The cultural boom of the Weimar Republic has turned seedy and desperate in the face of an as-yet unknown but foreshadowed atrocity. Even those characters with intuition enough to possess a generalized sense of doom, of course, fail to comprehend its magnitude. They are haunted and menaced by future that we, the viewers, know but they cannot. In a sense, Cabaret is a horror story of a “the call is coming from inside the house!” sort; it’s no small challenge to imbue the reckless, driven hedonism of its characters with the appropriate, inarticulate terror of their fates— and still to entertain.
With the latter task, C-R Productions’ current version of the musical succeeds easily, but skimps on the former. The set design, staging, and song list of this Cabaret are strongly influenced by—really, lifted from—the 1998 revival of the play, which starred Alan Cumming in an astonishing and delightfully lurid take on the Emcee character first played by Joel Grey. In the role of Emcee for C-R Productions, Chris Chiles seems to split the difference between those portrayals: In appearance and costume, he is clearly referencing Cumming, and certainly he is more playful and impish than Grey. Still, there is a degree of distance in Chiles’s performance. He plays the role as a rouged and randy jester: having fun, provoking fun, poking fun—but still an observer. Chiles was exciting and enormously entertaining while on stage; but when he left, he left. Whereas, Cumming’s Emcee seemed omnipresent, the very spirit of both the Kit Kat Club and of sexy, dangerous and doomed Berlin at the time.
This difference informs the entire production.
If you are not familiar, the basic plot of Cabaret is that an American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (John Grieco) travels to Berlin, the latest stop on a European tour seeking inspiration, where he meets and falls for an English nightclub entertainer, Sally Bowles (Ruthie Stephens). During his brief stay in the city he becomes familiar with some of the rougher, downtrodden and more dangerous elements of 1930s Berlin: a boarding-house proprietress, her Jewish suitor, the entertainers/working girls and boys of the Kit Kat Club, and National Socialists just getting comfortable flexing their muscle. Cliff is a kind of tourist of the underworld, whose (perhaps affected) innocence will not stand long in this mix.
Grieco has an appropriately boyish air for the naive American abroad; and he and Stephens, as a flighty, rattled Sally, have an easy chemistry. In fact, all the performers—from the multitalented actor-musicians who play the Kit Kat performers—to the supporting roles, are great fun to watch. (And to hear: Cabaret, in my opinion, has some of the most appealing songs in American Musical Theater).
And that’s the catch: This is a very entertaining Cabaret. But there is, in this production, little sense of menace. The actors do conjure emotional vulnerability, but it’s of a “local” sort. With the exception of Nick Abounader, as the creepy Nazi smuggler Ernst Ludwig, there is little punch to the historical tragedy seeded in these scenes. One scene, in which Cliff gets a beating from Ludwig’s thugs, was unconvincingly staged; and Greico’s bluff, though bruised, manner after the fight seemed a missed opportunity to acknowledge the impending punishment.
(In fairness to the cast, it’s got to be mentioned that the performance I attended was halted, mid-scene, due to a medical emergency in the audience. The entire troupe handled it like, well, troupers. But it was an unfortunate interruption.)
The play’s final scene, again following the lead of the 1998 production, features the Emcee wishing the audience “good night” then removing his leather trench coat to reveal a striped prisoner’s costume. When worn by Cumming, the costume bore both the yellow star the Nazis used to designate Jewish internees of the concentration camps and the pink triangle used to mark homosexuals. In this production, Chiles wore just the yellow star. It was a curious alteration that may have been made for any number of reasons. But, to me, given that the production had otherwise so closely followed the ’98 staging, it suggested a symbolic kind of hesitation to wholly commit to the full horrific context of Cabaret.