It’s been 54 years since Cabaret first opened on Broadway, but this season is the first time the Olney Theatre Center has staged the show. I have always loved this Kander and Ebb masterpiece, but of all the productions I’ve seen, including on Broadway, I love director Alan Paul’s version best of all.
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s burlesque musical treatment of the foundations of fascism, Cabaret is a tightly woven tapestry of romance in a dangerous time stitched through with glittering threads of absurdly dark comedy.
The show opens on the Kit Kat Klub where two extremes meet in the middle years between the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany.
There are the debauched libertines seeking to soothe themselves against the sting of the Weimar Republic’s depressed economy and what many Germans considered their humiliation after the Great War. They are joined by fascist nationalists who want to course correct the moral dissolution of the cabaret set and rid the nation of its so-called impurities, including Jews and non-whites.
Caught in between are two sets of lovers, each of whom comes to see that the center will not hold. There is the kind and optimistic German Jewish widower who courts a shrewd but bawdy spinster Berliner, and an American novelist who, after dabbling in Berlin’s homosexual underworld, commits to an English showgirl whom he believes is carrying his child.
Each perceives their powerlessness to stop the coming collapse, but responds to this realization differently, in accordance with their respective world view and take on humanity.
Set designer Wilson Chin’s Kit Kat Klub (that’s with a KKK, mind you) is cosseted in opulence, complete with red velvet and sateen and sleek Art Deco fixtures, softly lit with several crystal-drop chandeliers by lighting designer Colin K. Bills, imbuing the set with a cozy ambiance.
In a brief interview before curtain, Olney artistic director Jason Loewith explained, “There were so many different kinds of cabarets in the Weimar Republic, not just the seedy ones. Wilson wanted to present a different, more elegant world.”
The effect is poignant and emphasizes the desperation of mid-20th Century Berlin where the city’s declining fortunes made recklessness seem sensible to some, even if it helped to hasten the city’s ruin.
I preferred Chin’s take to the Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall 1998 Broadway revival of the show that focused more on the explicit nature of Berlin’s sex culture than on the underlying causes of Germany’s decline, which are more of what makes this show timeless.
The Emcee, a one-man Greek chorus played in this production by Arlington, Va. native, Mason Alexander Park, is the only one who holds the real middle ground between the two extremes, constantly reminding us of the light and the dark in each and every one of us and of the truth that life on the edge – any edge – is dangerous.
I admit that because Park is only 24, I was skeptical he was capable of the nuanced ennui essential for the role.
Well, I was wrong.
Park, with the triple threat toolbox of dance, vocal, and acting skills, not to mention the comic timing I expect from a far more seasoned performer, is astoundingly good. I was impressed not only with his unerring blend of compassion and insouciance throughout but his ability to be the star without upstaging his castmates. It made for a night of brilliant roots theater: Olney began 82 years ago as a summer stock stage where ensemble acting was its bread and butter.
Olney’s Cabaret cast is indeed ensemble acting at its finest.
Alexandra Silber’s showgirl Sally Bowles proffers her cynical but sensitive self to Gregory Maheu’s wide-eyed and quite likable Pennsylvanian, Clifford Bradshaw. Maheu is commendable in handling his character’s epiphany around the gathering Nazi storm, moderating his righteous indignance so that we can relate to it rather than hear it as just another extreme point of view.
Silber capably sings the showstoppers, including the delightful “Don’t Tell Mama.” Her “Maybe This Time” is harsher and more cynical than I think is appropriate to the character’s mindset in that moment, but that is less a quibble than an observation. By the time Silber gets to “Cabaret”, however, Sally’s utter sense of shame and defeat is appropriate, emphasized by how costume designer Kendra Rai drapes Sally from head to toe in scarlet sateen so that virtually no skin shows, as though Hester Prynn were a Berliner. Sally’s canary yellow character shoes peeking out like dinner rolls from under the hem adds an inspired stroke of absurdity.
Donna Migliaccio’s pragmatic Fraulein Schneider gives a wisened but joyful performance of “So What”, providing an ironic contrast to Sally’s actual apathy. Local Maryland actor Mitchell Hebert breathes such affability and optimism into Herr Schultz, Fraulein Schneider’s suitor, that knowing our world history as we do, it is painful to consider how his misguided optimism likely spells his doom. I was touched by the two lovers’ duet, “Married,” replete with the sweetness of unexpected love in the winter of life.
Jessica Lauren Ball’s Fraulein Kost paired with Tom Story’s Ernst Ludwig are excellent as Nazi sympathizers shameless in their hypocrisy, which Fraulein Schneider calls out, declaring of the Nazis with a shudder, “they are my friends and neighbors.”
Director Alan Paul ensures plenty of laughs, keeping the dark absurdist gem a-pace. Yet the show is also deadly serious, consummately reflected in Paul’s successful collaboration with musical director and associate artistic director Christopher Youstra who helmed the burning band. Together, Paul and Youstra keep the tension just so, allowing us time to breathe in between the laughter and the dawning horror.
Katie Spelman’s choreography, Ali Pohanka’s wigs, and Matt Rowe’s sound production were all virtually flawless.
Note: Cabaret is one of many shows participating in Theatre Week! Get tickets to performances of Cabaret and many other shows for $35 or less between September 10-29. See ticket deals here.