Plano — Kander and Ebb’s dark, sexually charged Cabaret becomes even darker and more sexual—and, in the political climate of America in 2017, almost frightening—in a production by Brick Road Theatre, now playing at the Courtyard Theatre in Plano.
In the half-century since its premiere on Broadway, the show’s central character Sally Bowles has become an archetype of careless hedonism, the title song has become part of our musical heritage, and the phrase “life is a cabaret” has become part of the language. The play itself has become a staple of repertory companies—as well as, in the 1972 film version starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, one of the most Oscar-winning films of all time. And yet, as this version proves, Cabaret can be as fresh as ever in live production. As was once said of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, its power to shock has not diminished over time.
Rich as it is with believable, complex characters—not to mention the fascinating setting of pre-Nazi Berlin—any production of Cabaret thrives or fails on the role of Sally Bowles. And whoever plays Sally Bowles must be backed up by a production and supporting cast that allows both her toughness and vulnerability to blossom. Although she is conniving, not particularly smart, and not particularly talented, the singing actress who portrays her must be able to win our sympathy and, while portraying a not-so-talented entertainer, enthrall us with a great musical performance.
As Sally Bowles, Janelle Lutz delivers. This version of Bowles can’t get on stage at the Kit Kat Klub without inhaling cocaine, but, degraded as she is, we are allowed, at one key moment, to see her as she imagines herself, and as we wish she might be. Standing in a cheap boarding house hallway in a slip, hoping to break the cycle of exploitation, she suddenly appears in a dream version of herself, in an elegant gown with a microphone, to deliver “Maybe this Time” with the power, grace, and agony of the great torch-song divas in the lineage of Garland and Minelli. A little later, the title song itself becomes, instead of a defiant anthem to devil-may-care freedom, an angry admission of defeat.
In this version, director-choreographer Jeremy Dumont pushes sexual adventurousness in his choreography and even in the delivery of text; the implied ambivalence of the original text, in this revised version borrowed from a 1998 Broadway revival, charges past hints and possibilities into aggressive, full-blown homosexuality and pansexuality. As Clifford Bradshaw (the character based on the real Christopher Isherwood, whose autobiographical fiction inspired the show), Billy Betsill maintains an air of staid small-town innocence but slips easily, and early on, into a kiss that leaves no doubt of his real sexuality.
The third key element in the cast, the all-knowing Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, comes to life with slithering seductiveness as played (and magnificently sung) by Tyler Jeffrey Adams, who, in addition to his voice and acting ability, owns a pair of eyes that can hypnotize an entire room. As one who has heard “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” many times over the decades, I’ll admit the punchline hits the gut as powerfully as ever in Adams’ performance. (Interestingly, in this version of Cabaret, the Emcee’s song “Two Ladies,” originally staged as a ménage of one man and two woman, here becomes two men—one in drag—and one woman.)
The subplot of Fraulein Schneider, the landlady who falls in love with and then abandons, in deference to the rise of anti-Semitism, the Jewish fruit-merchant Herr Schultz, comes to the fore increasingly as the plot advances, aided in this production by the touchingly real performances of Sara Shelby-Martin and Greg Loso. Don Servetnick as the friendly neighborhood Nazi and Laura Lites as the “working girl” Fraulein Kost contribute neatly to the mosaic of character types that give Cabaret its richness.
While the production as a whole is strong and communicated well the human side of the decadent night life of pre-Nazi Berlin, the shoebox auditorium slightly undermines the intimacy and immediacy inherent in Cabaret. Placing the orchestra, a well-managed ensemble under the direction of Adam C. Wright, behind the onstage bar, is a far-from-satisfactory strategy, resulting in accompaniment that is onstage and yet invisible to the audience. Amy Poe’s costumes are strikingly effective and authentic for the era, while Aaron Johansen’s lighting design appropriately suggests Weimar-era expressionism in its off-kilter projections.
The final scene is considerably more horrible than the typical audience member might expect from earlier versions of Cabaret; this is by no means a happy feel-good show. And the underlying theme, which, in past decades, American audiences have been able to experience with a comfortable sense of “it can’t happen here,” takes on a new and appropriate reality in Trump’s America. Cliff’s line, “If you aren’t against all of this, then you are for it,” delivered in response to the visible rise of Naziism in Cabaret, hits like a bolt of lightning nowadays; one could hardly step out of the theater into the calm suburban pleasantness of Plano without hoping and praying that the historical events depicted in Cabaret can be taken as a warning to be heeded and not as a prophecy of the inevitable.