The economy is broken. The political world is in an uproar. The current party in power is about to be overrun by one that is completely different. Times are tough, and those people working from paycheck to paycheck are finding it more and more difficult to live, let alone eat. And whether the people like it or not, things are going to get much worse than they are already.
Sound familiar? It should. But these circumstances, while reflecting the current political and financial world in the modern-day U.S., also describe the scary and crumbling situation in pre-World War Two Germany, in the days just prior to the rise of the Nazi party. This is the setting that, 58 years ago, was the subject of the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, based on The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. We know it better as its metamorphosis, Cabaret. The musical adaptation examines the lives of those people who were soon to be steamrolled by the Nazi party in the late 1930s. But the original 1966 Broadway smash script, as well as the widely acclaimed movie of 1972, saw a metamorphosis of its own during the 1990s, and that new, darker reality of back-alley Berlin is the subject of the current production of Cabaret onstage at Raleigh Little Theatre.
The characters are the same. The Kit Kat Klub (it is impossible to miss the KKK reference) still has the mysterious Emcee (Mark Ridenour), and the currently popular chanteuse from Mayfair, England, Fraulein Sally Bowles (Shannon Pritchard-Cook). The naïve author from America is still Clifford Bradshaw (Jesse R. Gephart); and he still meets and befriends Ernst Ludwig (Jay Dolan), a native German, on the train into Berlin. But the Berlin of this current production, the one that shows the ends to which the people involved will go to survive, is a far darker, angrier, and more dangerous place than is the Berlin of the original Cabaret.
Director Haskell Fitz-Simons builds this production with a huge and talented cast on a set that is a stark two-tiered Kit Kat Klub, with the orchestra up and in back of the main stage, and with the requisite tables and chairs of those patrons who have come to escape their troubles in the Klub. This stark and complex set is the brainchild of lighting and scenic designer Rick Young. Director Fitz-Simons notes that the show is rated PG-13, flaunting mature themes and lingerie-clad “ladies” or “girls” who run around incessantly, taunting the audience with lewd gestures and poses.
What is still divinely intact is the music. A six-piece orchestra of brass, strings, and reeds — led by Julie A. Florin — blasts out the music from their perch upstairs, creating the enticing air of the Kit Kat Klub and — due to the fact that some of the singers are not miked — sometimes drowns out the song in their exuberance. Songs that are done by the chorus, or which use the old-fashioned microphone stand, are fine and clearly heard. Some of the songs that develop plot, sung by say, Fraulein Schneider (Eraine Oakley), owner of the boarding house; or her beau, Herr Schultz (John Adams), are sometimes drowned out completely. This is the only fly in an otherwise sumptuous ointment, which presents as many different characters as one might expect in the fantasy-world of what passes for show business in 1930s Berlin.
The outstanding music is all there, from the company-wide opening “Wilkommen” to the title song, which actually closes the show. The songs that are reined over by the Emcee, a sinister, tall, and foreboding Mark Ridenour, recall the soundtrack of the original in all their style and enthusiasm. Ridenour gives us a pretty wicked and different take on the Emcee than the prototypical take by film star Joel Grey. Nevertheless, he is a force to be reckoned with onstage, and casts a long shadow over everything that takes place in this Berlin.
The budding but ill-fated romance that takes place between the “cosmopolitans,” Cliff and Sally, is reflected by the similarly fated romance between the aging denizens of Berlin, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. It is fear, an emotion rampant in this show, that divides both couples, Sally’s fear of commitment to a man and loss of her “career,” and Fraulein Schneider’s fear of how the perception in this atmosphere would be changed by her marrying a Jew, despite the love evident in both cases. Cabaret is famous still, partly because it is a musical in which Love does not, in fact, defeat the reality of its environment.
Highlights of the show are all standards of Cabaret. The emcee leads the Kit Kat girls in the iconic “Two Ladies,” “Money, Money, Money,” and Act II opener, “Kickline.” Sally shows off her pipes and covers a true vulnerability with the hardshelled “Mein Herr” and “Don’t Tell Mama,” while revealing with true emotion that same vulnerability in “Maybe This Time,” from Act I, and “Cabaret” from Act II. The cast does a stellar job of executing the rich choreography of J. Michael Beech in all of these numbers, including the ballroom-like “Fruit Shop Dance,” which marks the beginning of the tenuous relationship between Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider.
This is the second time at RLT that Haskell Fitz-Simons has directed Cabaret. But the original (and far less dark) production and this current version are grim opposites in tone, and the musical forcefully displays its staying power with undercurrents that, in today’s economy, continue to be relevant and riveting. Even if you can sing all the songs in Cabaret, you owe it to yourself to see this production performed by a first-rate cast at Raleigh Little Theatre.
Cabaret continues through June 28th. See our theatre calendar for details.