Using the word "Nazi" at the wrong time can both pick a fight and end an argument. The German fascists embraced such evil policies that comparing them to contemporary figures can short-circuit serious discussion of present-day events. Dramatizing the Third Reich can steamroll modern metaphors and merely affirm that the Holocaust sure was horrific.
The 1966 John Kander-Fred Ebb musical Cabaret manages to find relevant echoes in the rise of the Nazis without sounding overwrought. The essential story views the downfall of Germany's Weimar Republic through the eyes of hedonistic regulars at Berlin's decadent Kit Kat Club. Cabaret has undergone many versions for many decades, from Christopher Isherwood's original Goodbye to Berlin stories, John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera, Kander and Ebb's 1966 musical and Bob Fosse's Oscar-amassing 1972 film.
Directed by Heidi Cline, the Shakespeare Tavern's Cabaret emulates the 1998 Broadway revival of the musical, which drew together elements of both the original show and the movie, only updated for an era of gay activism. Combining zesty musical numbers with wrenching content, the Shakespeare Tavern's saucy but scattershot Cabaret retains the musical's enormous power.
With Cabaret, the Shakespeare Tavern trades the bawdy humor of Elizabethan comedies for raunchier, steamier burlesque. If you've seen more crotch-grabbing than displayed by this show, well, you lead a more interesting life than I do. As the emcee of Berlin's jazz-era Kit Kat Club, Jeff McKerley leers and gropes over the scantily dressed chorus girls and boys alike. In "Two Ladies," he extols the joys of ménage a trois with a pair of women, then a woman and man, and then practically everybody with everybody else.
Berlin's unleashed lust attracts broke American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Matt Nitchie), who seems attracted to both the frauleins and the herrens. He's swept up by Sally Bowles (Agnes Harty), a vivacious, provocative Kit Kat Club headliner, who moves in with flummoxed but entranced Cliff at the first opportunity. Cabaret presents a complex portrait of sexuality, endorsing erotic liberation and winking at a prostitute (Lala Cochran), but suggesting that too many earthly delights provide fatal distraction from political dangers.
In the movie, Joel Grey's grinning, white-faced master of ceremonies looked upon tragic events with glee and approval worthy of the devil himself. McKerley's emcee shows more human concerns that create increasing tension in the songs. Frequently shirtless and wearing suspenders, he chats up the audience like a drag queen masquerading as a rent boy, but reveals rage and revulsion as the Nazis intrude in the a cappella chorus "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." The show's final image proves even more shattering than the classic film's.
In the second act, goose-stepping and Nazi salutes are introduced with an edge of mockery, like the way a gay-pride parade float would spoof fundamentalist religion. On film, Gray emphasized the anti-Semitic punch line of the vaudeville-style "If You Could See Her," but McKerley ends the piece with an act of defiant solidarity with persecuted minorities.
Harty doesn't get upstaged by memories of Liza Minnelli as Sally. Harty proves she's a capable musical performer (although her English accent seems to fade out during the songs), and as an actress, she's got magnetism to spare. It's easy to imagine Harty's Sally leading an endless line of dumbstruck men in her wake. Harty reveals an almost telepathic ability to communicate mixed feelings, from mock innocence at the seductive end to the tune "Perfectly Marvelous" to self-delusion in the title number. The genius of the song and the show is that it presents live-affirming lyrics in such a terrifyingly grim context. When Sally sings "Life Is a Cabaret," it sounds more like a threat than a joyous promise.
The autumn-year romance between Cliff's landlady Fraulein Schneider (Ellen McQueen) and Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Clark Taylor) weighs down the action like an anchor. McQueen and Taylor prove a huggable twosome, and it's a nice touch to see love blossom between characters of their age in a musical. At first, when Schultz woos Schneider with a pineapple, they're a little too cutesy, and when the rise of bigotry puts pressures on their relationship, the action turns maudlin.
It doesn't help that McQueen's two solos, "So What?" and "What Would You Do?" are confined to the relatively distant corner of the set that represents Cliff's small apartment. As much as the hip-rolling, high-kicking cabaret numbers fill the stage, the smaller, personal songs get shunted to the side. You're a little too aware of the need to hustle Harty down front for the final high notes of her big songs.
Some of the actors and chorus members double as orchestra musicians, including Cochran and McQueen in slinky negligees, a touch that turns up the show's temperature. Artistic director Jeff Watkins plays the saxophone and clarinet while doubling as a deceptively cheerful, harmless-seeming German businessman, Ernst Ludwig.
Just as Herr Ludwig tempts Cliff into high-paying but illegal work, so do many of Cabaret's characters act against the dictates of the hearts and consciences. When the famous tune "Money" lampoons the Nazis, it suggests that fascism and greed can tyrannize people with equal severity. By the end of the show, the emcee asks the audience, "Where are your troubles now? Forgotten!" Yet the pertinent warnings of Cabaret can't be dismissed with just a shrug or a wink.
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