One doesn’t think of the 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret as being particularly malleable. It’s the tale of a brassy nightclub singer in Weimar Germany and her American boyfriend as they witness the Nazis’ rise to power. It’s a show that can be staged with varying degrees of sexuality and political awareness, and the humor is deliberately outré.
But the conceit is fairly straightforward: Will the couple rage against the horror rising around them, or choose to lose themselves in a fog of hedonistic pleasure?
All of which makes what director Irene Alby has done at the University of Toledo a bit of an adventure. It’s mostly intriguing, sometimes compelling, and occasionally just plain weird. Instead of accentuating politics or sex, Alby spotlights the excesses of both. She wants to get theatergoers out of their comfort zone, and, in large part, she succeeds.
Start with the casting. American Clifford Bradshaw arrives in 1931 Berlin nearly broke and determined to find inspiration for his novel. It is a golden-haired role usually essayed by, well, golden-haired boys. Instead, Alby casts African-American actor Phillipe E. Taylor in the part. It’s a bold, slyly subversive move.
And in the pivotal role of the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, where much of the action takes place, she’s foregone the Oscar-winning white face of Joel Grey for something more feral. As played by Noah York, her ringmaster is part satyr and part Marquis de Sade. He gives gusto to the show, although Alby has him inexplicably hovering on the fringes of nearly every scene.
Poor Clifford doesn’t know what‘s hit him when he arrives in Germany. He’s befriended by a charming businessman named Ernst Ludwig (Alex F. Hotchkiss) with a hidden agenda, and quickly bedded by the club’s star chanteuse, Sally Bowles (Lindsey D. Miller). She soon moves into Cliff’s room at the boarding house and announces that they are a couple.
Landlady Fraulein Schneider (Juliette Morgan) is willing to overlook this indiscretion in exchange for the steady rent. Besides, she has other things on her mind: a budding romance with kindly Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (William P. Toth). Neither can see the storm clouds gathering on the horizon, which will soon make the definition of who is a “true” German painfully obvious.
The songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb remain powerful nearly 50 years later: The smarmy Two Ladies (which presages the whole polygamy argument), Sally’s declaration of independence Don’t Tell Mama, and the Aryan anthem Tomorrow Belongs to Me, which here Alby has sung by German citizens as they fall under the spell of Hitler and his henchmen.
There is also genuine affection and chemistry generated when Toth and Morgan sing Married, as they make wedding plans. In supporting roles, the pair pretty much steal this show.
As for the rest, Taylor acquits himself nicely in the least flashy part in the show, while Miller excels at capturing Sally Bowles’ brashness, if not her vulnerability. When she sings the Act II lament Cabaret, we never quite believe that she’s a broken woman. We need the fragility of a Judy Garland. She gives us Courtney Love.
In other respects, this production treads some interesting ground, taking a cue from the 1998 Broadway revival. Alby and team make liberal use of video screens overhead, including some horrifying images of Nazi atrocities. Erica Frank’s costumes scream camp. And in seating two dozen audience members at cocktail tables, they become complicit in the proceedings.
Then there are the sexual gyrations of dancers at the Kit Kat Klub, some of which make the twerk look like a Sunday school exercise. Michael Lang’s choreography ranges from the pedestrian to provocative and makes good use of Daniel Thobias’ expansive set. Too much? For some perhaps, but it’s surely in keeping with the lascivious atmosphere that was pre-WW II Berlin.
This isn’t your father’s Cabaret. It takes risks, not always successfully, but unexpected and ultimately welcome.
"Cabaret" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 4 p.m. Sunday in Center Theatre in UT’s Center for Performing Arts. Additional performances are at 7:30 April 18-19. Tickets are $15, $12, and $10, and are available from 419-530-2375, utoledo.edu/boxoffice, and at the Center for Performing Arts box office at Towerview and Rocket Boulevard on the UT campus.
Contact Mike Pearson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6168.