John Kander and Fred Ebb, one of the great musical theater teams, excelled at dichotomal themes in their musicals. A show about a famous trial in which nine black men are accused of raping two white girls is presented as a minstrel show (the currently Tony-nominated The Scottsboro Boys), for example; or another set in the unglamorous world of prison but given a glizty, showbiz treatment (Chicago).
Or how 'bout Cabaret, the one in which the Nazis are rising to power, but that focuses on the tales of love and debauchery in a 1931 Berlin nightclub? That musical, which features a book by Joe Masteroff and is taken from John Van Druten's play based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, is Kander and Ebb's finest achievement.
In Dallas Theater Center's current revival, directed and choreographed by Joel Ferrell and using Sam Mendes' 1990s London and Broadway revival version (which has slight changes from the original in song selections and order), the dualities are played up even more. The result is a show that razzles and dazzles, and packs a wallop when the themes emerge that deal with the travesties that the Nazis would inflict over the subsequent 15 or so years.
Like the lyrics to the title song, DTC asks "what good is sitting alone in your room?" when you can not only come to their Cabaret, but be simultaneously entertained, moved and even haunted?
It's interesting that Cabaret, which is the best musical production and best use of the Wyly since the theater opened, follows the best play production (which also made outstanding use of the space), Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate. Ferrell directed both.
Taking a cue from Mendes' Broadway production at Studio 54 Theatre, there's table seating on the floor so that those audience members feel even more part of the Kit Kat Club, where we're told that the girls, boys and even the orchestra is beautiful. (It's all true.)
Scenic designer Bob Lavallee has created a thrust for the club's stage; a bandstand (for the five excellent musicians, lead by dolled-up music director Elaine Davidson on a grand piano that fits into the club milieu); a winding second-story catwalk for the performers; and a large area at stage left shrouded in floor-to-ceiling tapestries, used throughout the show (and before it opens) to suggest unsavory happenings behind the curtain. Lighting designer Lap Chi Chu assists with that magic.
But the real magic is in the casting. Brierley Acting Company members Chamblee Ferguson (as Ernst, the German working for the Nazis) and Sally Nystuen Vahle (as prostitute Fraulein Kost) offer up bravura turns. Fellow company member Lee Trull is smartly cast in one of the major musical theater roles that a non-singer can get away with, as Clifford. He’s the American teacher and novelist who eventually falls for singer Sally Bowles (Kate Wetherhead), despite being homosexual, which is played up more than it was when the musical premiered in the '60s. It's another reminder of something that would need to be hidden in an oppressive regime, even as the Kit Kat Club welcomes all stripes and indulgences.
Two local favorites, Julie Johnson and David Coffee, come close to stealing the show, playing landlady Fraulein Schneider and the German-Jewish man who wants to marry her, Herr Schultz. The chemistry between them is the heart of the show, what would be the one perfect relationship in the midst of chaos, certainly compared to the one between Sally and Cliff, which needs its own baggage claim.
And talk about a juxtapostion in casting, with the tiny Wetherhead as Sally and the tall, muscular, shaved-head presence of Wade McCollum as the Emcee. Originally, the Emcee was a tuxedoed character of which Marlene Dietrich would have approved, but Mendes made him a type that would be more at home at an S&M club (for you Dallasites used to see-and-be-seen hotspots, that doesn't mean "stand and model"). Often, the emcee has a pronounced feminine side (here, that's left for the Kit Kat Girls, played by Katharine Gentsch, Tiffany Hobbs, Elise Lavallee, Traci Lee, Merrill West and Walter Lee Cunningham Jr. in a transgender twist; and the KK boys, played by Jason Moody, Alex Ross, Jeremy Dumont and Kent Zimmerman). Alan Cumming was Emcee on Broadway in ’98, and you could imagine him and Sally swapping outfits backstage. McCollum's Emcee is fittingly sexual, with a caffeinated charisma that's made more darkly intriguing by his menacing physical presence. When he whisper-sings "I Don't Care Much," it's entrancing.
Sally was never meant to be a bombshell or a star singer, but even though she fits the bill, it takes a while to warm up to Wetherhead. Her mix of desperation and forced confidence eventually shines through, and her final number, "Cabaret," is heartbreaking.
Her tragic end is devastating, but not so much next to the final image that Ferrell creates for this production. It won't be spoiled here, but it's unforgettable.
In that moment, the town that Cliff had described as "tawdry and terrible," where everyone’s having a great time, isn’t so glamorous. The spectacle is overshadowed by the specter of what we know is coming, and all of those disruptions in our personal lives—loves lost, opportunities missed—seem utterly insignificant.