Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Joe Masteroff
Arts Club Theatre Company
Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage
May 18-July 16
Very few musicals open with such panache or end so grimly as Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. In the production at the Stanley we’re welcomed to the decadence of 1930s Berlin by an eerie John Mann as the white-faced, red-lipped, shaven-headed Emcee, the voice of the show’s cynicism. He introduces us to Bruce Kellett’s cross-dressed Kit Kat Club band members, who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and to the Kit Kat Club girls and boys in Alison Green’s deliciously scanty costumes who dance and sing a lascivious “Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome!”
What could be more fun than Germany teetering on the dark edge of the Nazi abyss?
Cabaret is an anti-musical that plays nasty games with the conventions of the genre, sugar-coating a bitter pill. The Emcee’s most entertaining numbers celebrate group sex (“Two Ladies”), anti-Semitism (“If You Could See Her”), and greed (“Money, Money”). The title song is a desperately ironic embrace of nihilism; the most beautiful song, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a harshly ironic Nazi anthem. Instead of the usual triumphs of innocence, goodness and love, its two love stories end with an abortion and the Holocaust.
The trick is to make all this fabulously entertaining, to suck us into the mindless good times before the apocalypse, then show us how easily we’ve been seduced. Dead civilians in Afghanistan? Hey, we don’t cut and run. Glaciers melting? Who cares, my condo’s worth a million bucks!
Bill Millerd’s Arts Club production mostly succeeds. But much of it feels too restrained, a little self-censored where sheer excess has to carry the day.
The strengths of the show are many. Mann underwrites the repulsive sleaze of the Emcee with huge charm and graces his musical numbers with a great character voice and lithe physicality. Just watch when he joins the Kit Kat Girls’ kick line. Bob Frazer brings his affable, boy-next-door innocence to the role of Cliff, our surrogate on stage, the American writer who falls for the attractive veneer of Berlin, and English cabaret performer Sally Bowles, before fleeing their hopeless corruption.
As promiscuous, world-weary, desperate Sally, Sara-Jeanne Hosie opens with a bang, singing and dancing “Don’t Tell Mama” with the Kit Kat Girls, a Marlene Dietrich chair routine cleverly choreographed by Valerie Easton. But otherwise Easton rarely rises to her usual awe-inspiring choreographic standard. And Hosie pushes much too hard as an actor—one place where restraint would have worked better—while her singing voice never really soars.
The subplot involving the older lovers, Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz, is carried by the fine performances of Nicola Lipman and David Adams, who make them utterly charming.