Cabaret is genuinely a lot to take in. You’ve got a nightclub with Nazis, prostitutes, and Nazi prostitutes. And they’re backset by the rise of World War II, antisemitism, abortion discourse, xenophobia, poverty, and xenophobia as a result of poverty. Cabaret at the Classic Theatre of Maryland, despite some performances that make it difficult to empathize with the main characters, brilliantly tells a tale of all these elements and more, including the complicit wickedness of silence in the face of evil. To drive this home, actors Nancy Krebs and John Pruessner — who play Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz — steal the show through their heartbreaking depiction of Nazism’s devastating human impact.
For the uninitiated: Cabaret is a 1966 musical (the Classic Theatre is performing the 1998 version) with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff about a nightclub in Berlin in 1929–1930, the Kit Kat Club. As the unbridled revelry of the cabaret offers day-to-day carousing that distracts its patrons and performers from long-term cares through shallow pleasures, the rise of the Nazi regime begins to seep into their lives.
In the lead role of Sally Bowles, Mandy Evans engages with great skill the key elements of her and director Sally Boyett’s interpretation of the character, but the character who emerges is not particularly sympathetic or appealing. Evans’s Sally Bowles is a slinky Bond girl who moves and speaks with a smooth slickness. She’s dead set on pursuing her own desires — whether that be taking over half a hotel room or sex — and damn all those in her way. She comes across as self-centered enough here to prevent audience members from developing an affinity for her personally, which given her status as a main character, has repercussions on how the show as a whole is experienced.
I would have liked to see director Sally Boyett give Sally Bowles more of a visible emotional arc as the show progresses. Instead, the audience sees that nothing distinguishes this moment in her life from the thousands before: Bowles says that she’s had love affair after love affair, and they all end the same way, and she doesn’t seem to have learned anything significant this time around. This particular instance we’ve just witnessed is notable only because it took place during the rise of the Nazis. But Bowles says of this rise, “It’s only politics. What does it have to do with us?” So never mind. She’s personally going to be fine, so why should she worry? And while Bowles’s indifference begs for some kind of consequence, she is never performed in a way that would suggest she has grown.
In terms of Evans’s vocal performance, I would humbly submit that the performer’s lack of vibrato, especially on extended notes, was distracting. Evans was deeply engaged with the character she’d chosen to convey, and while with my front-row seat I think I could see her shedding tears during the more emotional numbers, the complete lack of vibrato and a few marginally off-key notes — especially in the title song “Cabaret,” sung at the character’s lowest point as the Nazis threaten everything she owns and knows — distracted me from being able to fully empathize with the emotion of the music and character. Evans sings the piece with an emotional but monotonous tone throughout the song, rather than by phrasing each lyrical thought with contemplative rubato that would better match the song’s introspective and climactic themes.
The fact that the music in this production was played via a recording of Marc Irwin on keyboards, Scott Tiemann on drums, Jon Guo on bass, and Nancy Krebs on violin and vocals (the same Nancy Krebs who plays Fraulein Schneider) under musical producer Marc Irwin, and not by these musicians playing live, didn’t improve this aspect either; the music was expressively performed by the musicians in the recording, but a live orchestra adds a whole additional layer of authenticity to a show. The lack of this additional layer of authenticity would not have been too noticeable if not for some minor issues with Evans’s performance.
Cliff Bradshaw, portrayed by Josh Lee, is also portrayed as emotionally cold. I have seen other stage productions of Cabaret that convey Cliff as more of a stuttery, sweet, Clark Kent-esque figure. That interpretation takes Bradshaw along a journey from being an innocent, reserved, mild-mannered American boy from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, through a multifaceted loss of innocence, as he develops a romantic relationship with a cabaret singer and ends up in a fistfight with Nazis. But making Cliff Bradshaw cold throughout the show — even being physically rough with Sally Bowles out of anger — limits the possibility for character development.
A note on production design elements: The costumes created by director and costume designer Sally Boyett were indeed beautiful as well as visually authentic to the period. Furthermore, scenic designer Salydon Boyken and scenic charge artist Sarah Phillips created balcony structures and staircases on either side of the stage for this production that were well-constructed and period-appropriate and served their purpose in the show. Some elements of the decorated, illuminated molding at the back of the stage seemed somewhat messily painted — not egregiously so, but I think the pattern in its decoration could have been painted with slightly more precision.
The show’s contrast of the fast lives of the denizens of the Kit Kat Club and their indifference to evil stands in interesting juxtaposition to the characters Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz — this is the Classic Theatre production’s greatest achievement. Actress Nancy Krebs was perfectly cast as Schneider — she, like her character, is a veteran performer who’s been in this business for a while. The actress sang beautifully and emotionally, and her character ponders love and sex with caution and care, unlike the denizens of the Kit Kat Club. The man who loves her, Herr Schultz, a Jewish grocer, is played by a charming John Pruessner, who is also effortlessly natural and genuine. It is abundantly clear that this couple lives sweeter, deeper lives than the youthful patrons and performers of the Kit Kat Club. This point drives home what truly does seem to be the show’s key message: hedonism can provide short-term “pleasure” but pales in comparison to the value of depth and reason by way of both contrast and beauty. And Sally Bowles’s characterization as a selfish hedonist and the occasional technical issues with her vocals almost make sense under this interpretation.
Moreover, the Classic Theatre’s excellent execution of the show’s conclusion (spoiler alert) drives home with a dark beauty the danger of indifferent complicity toward evil. Quite impressively, this production of Cabaret demonstrates the dangers of ignorance and selfishness by depicting the disastrous consequences of poorly made decisions that range from the personal to the political — from using other people without a care for their or your own well-being, to becoming a Nazi. And some other issues aside, Classic Theatre does indeed convey this brilliantly.
Running Time: About two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.
Cabaret, the Musical plays through Sunday, March 6, 2022, at The Classic Theatre of Maryland – at 1804 West Street, Suite 200, Annapolis, MD 21401. For tickets ($68–$55, adult; $49–$62, senior, military, 30 and under), call the box office at 410-415-3513 or go online.
COVID Safety: Classic Theatre of Maryland’s COVID 19 Policy is here.
The complete credits for Cabaret appear in the program, which is online here.