By James V. Ruocco
"From 1929 to 1933, I lived almost continuously in Berlin, with only occasional visits to other parts of Germany and to England. Already, during that time, I had made my mind up that I would one day write about the people I'd met and the experiences I was having. So I kept a detailed diary, which in due course, provided the raw material for all of my Berlin stories."
(Christoper Isherwood,"The Berlin Stories")
And so, it begins.
Reprising the grunge, the turbulence, the heat, the sex, the excitement, the depravity, the seediness, the homosexuality, the angst, the unrest and the harsh undercurrents of Kander and Ebb's edgy classic American musical "Cabaret," Fairfield Center Stage strikes the right chord - on every level - as it chillingly exposes the dangers, the shock, the prejudice and the insidious political climate of pre-war Berlin during the Hitler regime in Germany. The way this production dances to its own decided beat and unfolds with such amazing flourish, influence and clarity, makes it impossible for one to look away for a single second. And when the ball drops at the end of Act II and the musical reaches its scorching, numbing conclusion, the effect is so emotionally draining, it's impossible not to be moved, disturbed, shaken or completely silenced by it all.
Brilliant theatre on every level imaginable.
You bet it is.
First and foremost, this is a very different "Cabaret."
It does not have a happy ending.
The camera, so to speak, has its shutter wide open in the most curious, blatant and inviting of ways.
It spins. It photographs. It stops. It stirs. It listens. It exposes.
Nothing is left to the imagination.
There is no sugar-coating or watered down facts.
The characters are bold, colorful, impulsive, reckless and full of life.
Their stories are real.
Their pain and heartbreak are real.
Their hopes and dreams are real.
The prejudice and hatred are real.
It's public zeitgeist with only a dalliance of color, but set to music.
Fairfield Center Stage's thrilling production of "Cabaret" flirts and seduces, gets you all hot and bothered, pierces your emotional senses, envelops you in its rippling musical narrative, titillates and surprises, catches you off guard and keeps you completely riveted as it revisits and reworks Joe Masteroff's original story and concept.
But first, let's backtrack.
Since its Broadway debut in November, 1966, the original "Cabaret" stage musical has been changed, altered, rewritten and revised to include original songs from the 1972 film adaptation or new ones that were introduced in subsequent incarnations including the 1993 London revival by Sam Mendes and his 1998 Broadway production with Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles and Alan Cumming as the Emcee. This edition takes its cue entirely from that critically-acclaimed outing and deletes "Meeskite," "The Telephone Song" and "Why Should I Wake Up?" from the song list, but adds "Maybe This Time" "Mein Herr" "Heiraten" from the original motion picture version of "Cabaret" along with "I Don't Care Much" from the 1987 production that brought Joel Grey back to Broadway to reprise his original Tony award-winning role.
Not to worry, though.
This "Cabaret" wisely retains most of the music from the original 1966 Broadway production that starred Jill Haworth, Lotte Lenya, Joel Grey, Bert Convy and Jack Gilford, In short: "Willkommen!" "So What?" "Don't Tell Mama," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Two Ladies," "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)," "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," "Money," "Married," "If You Could See Her," "What Would You Do?" "Cabaret" and the "Willkommen! (Reprise)."
For Fairfield Center Stage, musical direction is provided by Ben McCormack who also stars in the production as American writer Cliff Bradshaw, a character, based on part on the real-life experiences of Anglo-American gay novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood ("The Berlin Stories," "A Single Man"). Joining him are Clay Zambo (associate music director/keyboard), McNeil Johnston (bass/violin) and Gabe Nappi (drums), a talented threesome who, under McCormack's fine tutelage, know exactly how to push boundaries and make the show's familiar character-driven songs blaze and sing with the snap, emotional pulse and melodic allure set forth by the musical's savvy, intuitive originators, Kander (music) and Ebb (lyrics).
From the rousing opening number "Willkommen!" to the shattering, mind-blowing "Finale" that ends Act II, this "Cabaret" achieves a saucy, explicit, edgy passion and emotional depth that takes the already familiar music to an entirely new level. Yes, we know the music. Yes, we know the lyrics. Yes, we know the song rota. Yes, we know who sings what and when. Regardless, every song that is played and sung, achieves such a refreshing, mindset and attitude, it's almost as if we're hearing them for the very first time. In turn, songs like "Two Ladies," "Cabaret," "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," "Maybe This Time," "Willkommen!" "Mein Herr" and "So What? " among others, take on new meaning, thus, giving them additional sting, fuel, bite and melodrama as the "Cabaret" story inches forward over its allotted time frame. The orchestral energy - confidant, vibrant and varied - created by all four seasoned musicians (McCormack, in character as Cliff, periodically plays the on-the-set piano from time to time) heightens the overall feeling of the piece, its innate theatricality, its rhythmic fluidity, its heavy sense of menace and its sonic, percussive tapestry.
Staging "Cabaret," director Eli Newsom - a creative auteur and storyteller with a tremendous sense of mystery and dare about him - takes his cue from the wildly popular, dramatically challenging 1998 Sam Mendes Broadway edition, which is the guiding force of this version of the two-act musical that also includes new scenes, new dialogue, new endings, new plot twists and new characters. But like others before him, Newsom is not particularly interested in presenting another "Cabaret" that plays by the rule book or reenacts a previous incarnation, scene by scene, song by song, act by act. That would bore the hell out of him and dampen his creative input, which if you've seen any of his previous works, you already know that's not going to happen here. This director loves a challenge and he finds exactly that - and so much more - at Fairfield Center Stage.
With this "Cabaret" he doesn't pussyfoot around. Instead, he offers a more candid, honest and sensuous take on the source material, its characters, its sexual content, its edginess, its politics, its prejudices, its depravity, its seediness and its bleak, startling outcome. As the story unfolds, he exposes Cliff's homosexuality openly with kissing, touching, flirting and heated exchanges with former lovers that give the character a certain edge, definition and groundness. Sally Bowles, in turn, is much more than just a thrill-seeking party girl earning a living on her back or singing in a racy nightclub waiting for the next one-night stand. Here, she is desperate, neurotic, reckless, confused and completely oblivious to the ever-changing political climate that is about to engulf her and everyone else. Elsewhere, Newsom - his creative juices flowing - deftly defines the grimy yet inviting allure of pre-war Berlin, its decadent populace and the cheap, after hours clubs where sexual favors and sexual acts are performed with any combination or pairing. He also pays very close attention to the dangerous issues facing German Jews and homosexuals living in Berlin and what will happen to them and others when the Nazi takeover begins.
Directorially, Newsom is an original. He invents and reinvents. He takes chances and dares you to run with them. He doesn't copycat or repeat himself. He loves a challenge. He also loves the thrill of opening night. What's great about his work with "Cabaret" is that he doesn't whitewash, downplay or censor anything. He lets the material sit, breathe, stir, shake and resonate. He adds color, nuance and dimension to every one of the principal and supporting characters. He allows each and every one of them to bare their souls, make mistakes, trip and fall and pick themselves up again. This being a musical, he doesn't glamorize or underplay the drama, the emotion, the reality or the ferocity of the material. He also takes key points from John Van Druten's "I Am a Camera" and Christopher Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories" and adds them to his gripping interpretation. In turn, the dark soul that is "Cabaret," emerges.
The biggest difference between this version of "Cabaret" and others that came before it earlier this year and last is Newsom's crafty, sly and ferocious decision to stage the entire musical in an immersive theater setting that has the audience seated at tables, in chairs, on couches or at bar stools that signify the Kit Kat Klub. The theatergoer, a scene partner of sorts, is also surrounded by fragmented rooms, dressing tables, a working piano and other set pieces that are utilized throughout the telling of the story. It's a brilliant stroke of genius that embraces the musical's gritty song and dance numbers, its darkness, its sarcasm, its sensuality and its in-your-face rawness and crotch-grabbing. Newsom's fluid, precise and timely pacing heightens the overall experience every step of the way as does his decision to have the actors perform and enter from various parts of the immersive theater space often interacting directly with the audeince.
The high kickin' choreography, influenced in part by Bob Fosse's aggressively edgy dance maneuvers from the 1972 Oscar-winning film, is solidified here in this production by Lindsay Johnson, a creative talent well versed in the mechanics of immersive theatre staging, the rhythmic mindset that is "Cabaret" and the raunch and decadence of Berlin's infamous Kit Kat Klub during the Weimer era. Dancers stand. Dancers kick. Dancers pose. Dancers spread their legs wide open. Dancers bump and grind. Dancers flirt. Dancers touch each other openly and erotically. Heads droop. Heads turn. Bodies twist. Arms, legs and feet move imaginatively to the beat of the music. It's all pretty wild and naughty stuff that unfolds in the manner and style of the musical's 1930's setting where anything goes and anything can happen and does. Placing the audience strategically in the center of it all (remember, this is immersive theatre staging) heightens the mood, the feel, the heat and the allure of the production numbers and gives Johnson's work a tremendous voyeuristic spin that would be alarmingly modified or strangely absent if this revival were set on a proscenium stage.
For this go-round, every one of the dances is eye-catching, spirit-filled, grim and gritty. Staging "Cabaret's" very important musical moments - "Willkommen!" "Mein Herr," "Don't Tell Mama," "If You Could See Her," "Two Ladies" "Money" - Johnson creates a fiery blueprint that digs deep into the musical's reworked conceit and its steamy undercurrents so that they breathe, spin, seduce, entice and plunge us head first into the flavorful decadence of the piece. Her choices and her ideas are incredible to watch as dancers of every shape, size and gender - Emily Frangipane, Anne Collin, Bonnie Gregson, Matthew Casey, Patrick McMenamey, to name, a few - slither, pounce, prey and move anxiously about in wild abandon reflecting the harsh, queer, political and inscrutable essence of life in Berlin a very long time ago.
The casting of the charismatic, highly-animated Sean Michael Davis in the role made famous by Joel Grey in the original "Cabaret," the 1972 film adaptation and the subsequent 1987 Broadway revival, is a stroke on Newsom's part. He was born to the play the part and play he does. It's a showstopping character turn fraught with real emotion, real imagination, real charm, real bawdiness and real dimension. As "Cabaret's" mischievous Master of Ceremonies, Davis welcomes us into the world of decadent Berlin and its shameless sexual haven, eerily, sweetly and seductively. He smiles. He dazzles. He shines. He sparkles. He flirts. He cajoles. He manipulates. He fascinates. He seduces. He teases. He surprises. He looks right through you. He gets you all hot and sweaty.
He's also a fascinating actor, singer and dancer who creates his own raw interpretation of the iconic Emcee character without ever once looking back at Joel Grey's award-winning performance. Or for that matter, the one's envisioned by Alan Cumming, John Stamos, Randy Harrison or Wayne Sleep in the same role. Here, you get a decidedly different Emcee who dances to his own drum roar, wears both men's clothes and women's clothes slovenly, flirts shamelessly with both sexes and takes the stage of the Kit Kat Club like a true showman mixing eroticism, satire, gayness, pathos and condemnation most advantageously.
Musically, Davis is a gifted interpreter who shines, sparkles and delights. His big, splashy opening number "Willkommen!" has bite, string, flourish and decadent vitality. "If You Could See Her" a melodic rant about scorned love is both amusingly and sardonically delivered with a scene-stealing female gorilla (a very playful Bonnie Gregson) who loves being in the limelight with her handsome dance partner who insures everyone that he isn't bothered by her obvious Jewishness. The effervescent "Money," performed alongside the Kit Kat Klub chorus, is a sheer delight. The hilarious "Two Ladies" is raunchy, bawdy and happily mischievous. "I Don't Care Much," which he sings like a dying and tormented prisoner awaiting execution, is shivering, commanding and definitely worth an encore or two. It is also as good as Alan Cumming's rendition was in the 1998 revival of "Cabaret," directed by Sam Mendes.
In the pivotal role of tawdry Berlin party girl and songstress Sally Bowles, Arielle Boutin reminds one of Natasha Richardson who won a Tony Award for her saucy portrayal of the same character in the acclaimed Mendes revival. Like Richardson, she is charming, charismatic, original and completely captivating. Here, she puts a new spin on the iconic character and delivers a robust, powerful and free-spirited portrayal of the Kit Kat Klub's naughty, fancy-free entertainer. She does it with such precise, wicked abandon, Sally's idiosyncratic persona and her detachment from the real world rings loud and clear as does the character's brazen attitude toward romance, money, grandeur, clubbing, performing and one-night stands.
Vocally, she's a go-getter with a rich, expressive voice who offers her own, personal, impassioned take on "Cabaret's" most celebrated songs - "Maybe This Time," "Perfectly Marvelous," "Mein Herr," "Don't Tell Mama," "Cabaret." Her emotional engagement, breezy vibe, melodic sparkle and vocal clarity are trademark perfect as is her ability to project the intended meaning behind every lyric and every musical beat put before her. She doesn't just sing the songs, she owns them. And when it comes time to deliver the showstopping title tune near the end of Act II, the actress offers a unique twist to the number that allows us to feel her pain, her confusion, her desperation, her emotional denial and nightmarish euphoria.
Ambitious, struggling American writer Cliff Bradshaw, a gay novelist struggling with his own sexual identity, is played in this production by Ben McCormack. One of the most engaging and personable actors to tackle this role, he sensitively projects the image of a well-spoken, determined writer who longs for success and ends up meeting and bedding some of the play's most important characters including the infamous Sally Bowles. His performance is honest, genuine and heartfelt in the most beguiling of ways. He not only amazes at every single turn, but offers a characterization as good as anyone who's played the part of Cliff before on Broadway, in London or on National Tour.
For this go round, he only gets one song to sing - the cheeky and charming "Perfectly Marvelous," which he performs perfectly with Boutin. Doubling as musical director, he is called upon from time to time to play some of the show's pivotal songs, which he does ever so effortlessly.
In the plum role of Fraulein Schneider originated by Lotte Lenya in the original 1966 Broadway production of "Cabaret," Marilyn Olsen crafts a strong, convincing characterization of a lonely woman and landlady whose life is not as exciting or as fulfilling as she had hoped. Playing this kind-hearted survivor with the charm, edge and truthfulness envisioned by the show's creators, she commands your attention whenever she's on stage and brings so much more to the part than what is written on paper. Believe me when I say, you can't take your eyes off her for a moment. That's how amazing she is.
Musically, she is at the top of her game, capturing the underlying emotions of her character's songs with passion, realness and exquisite sensitivity. Her rendition of the perplexing "So What?" is as powerful and commanding as Lenya's was. Her sweet-tinged duets with Steve Benko - "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)" and "Married" are sung with poignant, tender and stirring emotion. Much later, during the second half of Act II, she delivers the potent and heartbreaking "What Would You Do?" an important song about choices, desperation, survival, wounded dignity and life's deafening blows. There is such truth and anguish in her interpretation, we really feel her character's pain and struggle through the lyrics. It's so incredibly rendered and performed, you want to stand up and shout, "Again, please."
Steven Benko, in the role of Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz, is an amazing actor and song stylist who brings real sincerity and compassion to his portrayal of the kindly older man who longs for companionship with Fraulein Schneider, but refuses to acknowledge the danger that lies ahead for German Jews under the Nazi regime by saying "It will pass. It will pass." Sadly, it never does, a fact that adds chilling resonance to his characterization at the end of Act II.
As Ernst Ludwig, a German who befriends Cliff Bradshaw on the train en route to Berlin at the beginning of the play, Nick Kuell offers a strong, centered portrayal of a man seduced by the Nazi politics of the time. He also makes the story's shameless Nazi undercurrents alarmingly real. As the sexually promiscuous Fraulein Kost, Alexis Willoughby, is saucy, racy, sexy and cunning in typical Red-Light district fashion (the character moonlights as a prostitute to pay her weekly rent), which is exactly what the part calls for. At the end of Act I, she and Kuell, backed by the "Cabaret" ensemble, take center stage to perform the eye-opening, faux-Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," It's a fitting close to the show's first act and one that is delivered with a full-voice emotion and pathos that lingers long after the house lights come up.
There's a lot to love about this latest incarnation of "Cabaret." Daring, edgy, hypnotic and enthralling, it has a pulse, drive and style all its own. It takes chances and runs with them. It dutifully embraces both the provocative conceit's set forth by Christopher Isherwood in "The Berlin Stories" and John Van Druten in "I Am a Camera" with bone-chilling resonance. Its numbing, crippling descent into the Nazi nightmare of Hitler's Germany is portrayed with raw intensity and boldness. Re-configured by director Eli Newsom in an immersive theatre setting, the actual story is more decadent, brazen and truthful than before. The tuneful Kander and Ebb score comes gift wrapped with melodically enticing music that is the heart and soul of this "Cabaret." Perry Liu's dark and inviting set design is edgy, observant and marvelously reflective of the show's up close and point-of-view concept.
The cast - principals, supporting players, dancers and ensemble - are completely in sync with the songs, the dialogue, the characters and the new material envisioned by the show's creators and collaborators. And the ending - all of the characters appear on stage, one by one, ready to face the consequences set forth by the Nazi regime - gives this production a metaphorical darkness that stings, hurts and breaks you in two.
"Berlin was in a stage of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning. out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon."
(Christopher Isherwood, "The Berlin Stories")
Photos of "Cabaret" courtesy of Kate Eisemann Pictures
"Cabaret" is being staged at Fairfield Center Stage (Trevil Lounge, 548 Kings Highway Cutoff, Fairfield, CT), now through September 28.
For more information, ca;; (203) 416-6446 (voice mail only) and leave a message.
For tickets, visit the FCS website.