The Kit Kat Club vs. the World
By Jim Reiter
There comes a time in Cabaret when Sally Bowles, the decadent, despondent chanteuse of Berlin’s doubly decadent and despondent Kit Kat Club, must literally face the music. The blanket of bohemian gaiety and eccentricity in which she has figuratively wrapped herself has been laid threadbare by the most basic human loss, yet she must report to work and sing of celebrations and wine and holidays. It is a heartbreaking moment, one that is beautifully performed by Mandy Evans as Sally in The Classic Theatre of Maryland’s just-opened production of Cabaret.
Evans’s emotional delivery of the title song is as devastating as the rest of her performance is brilliant. Sally is not supposed to be a gifted singer … if she were why would she be at the Kit Kat Club? Evans makes the song serve her character and the moment, rather than the singer serving the song. This brilliance is reflected in the rest of the cast, most especially John Stillwagon as the Emcee.
Stillwagon’s muscularity makes his Emcee a leering, eerie physical threat, sneering at the audience even as he invites us to be jealous of the no-holds-barred hedonism he so energetically represents. Both Sally and the Emcee are iconic roles, played famously by all manner of Broadway and film stars, but Evans and Stillwagon make the roles their own.
The seeds of the musical were planted by Christopher Isherwood’s book Goodbye to Berlin, based on the author’s experiences with a cabaret singer at a rundown club in the Weimar Republic. The book became the basis of a play, I Am a Camera, and the play became the 1966 John Kander and Fred Ebb Broadway musical that raked in a Best Musical Tony Award and spawned the 1972 movie by Bob Fosse and several revivals.
From the pre-show posing of the cabaret singers lazily lounging as they await the curtain with us to director Sally Boyett’s smoky staging, CTM’s Cabaret is a pleasure to watch yet difficult to be comfortable with.
Cabaret, set at a time when the Nazis were just coming to power, soon moves from an entertaining and voyeuristic treat for the eyes and ears to a kick-in-the-gut reminder that political apathy can lead to horrible things. While fueled by the debauchery and seaminess of people whose lives are so desperate and low that what’s going on outside doesn’t matter, the show asks us to ponder: how closely does what’s happening on the outside reflect the inside and vice versa? Fascism is on the rise, but who cares? We’re told that everything is beautiful at the Kit Kat Club, so why worry? Sound familiar?
Those questions are personified by the moving performances of Nancy Krebs as Fraulein Schneider, the owner of a boarding house, and John Pruessner as Herr Shultz, a Jewish fruit vendor who is one of her boarders. Their moments together are endearing, especially when he brings her a certain piece of fruit in It Couldn’t Please Me More (A Pineapple) and, when they get more serious, Married … with Christine Asero as Fraulein Kost beautifully singing over the two as they dance.
Others in the cast are uniformly good, notably Josh Lee as Cliff Bradshaw and Jesse Winton as Ernst Ludwig. Cliff is a bisexual American writer seeking refuge in a place he may be accepted. He offers Sally normalcy, but she does not share his recognition that the Nazi threat is real. Ernst is a smuggler who befriends Cliff but soon reveals himself as a Nazi.
The music of Cabaret (there are so many recognizable songs that there is no room to mention them all here, but Stillwagon’s If You Could See Her, is especially disturbing even today) deserves the finest representation, and CTM does it justice with a well-recorded score delivered on a very good sound system, clear and well-balanced and always supporting every musical moment, no matter how delicate or powerful.
And speaking of powerful: the ending of Cabaret is no off-into-the-sunset postcard. At the Kit Kat Club, things have figuratively turned inside out and outside in, and the stark representation of what once was gradually approaching both worlds is, in a flash, suddenly and briefly in front of us. It is an artistic kick in the gut.
Runs through March 6; ticket prices range from $68-$49; visit classictheatremaryland.org for information.