Broadway chroniclers rate Cabaret (1966) as one of the essential '60s shows: the first musical to digress from Rodgers and Hammerstein, the first to go dark, the first to have an overall concept, the first subversively sexy show, the first to affront an audience and make it squirm.
It this show weren't already a classic, Obsidian Theater's masterfully insightful production would make it so.
Written as a pastiche using Weimar Republic-era Kurt Weill's acidic style, this John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics), Joe Masteroff (book), and Harold Prince (director, producer) classic is one of a kind, no doubt about it. Based on Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical collection, Berlin Stories, it details the sexual decadence, some might say freedom and experimentation, in Europe's most wicked city during the rise of the Nazis.
An American gay innocent, Cliff (Cole Ryden), comes to Berlin to glean inspiration for his burgeoning writing career, falls for dissipated cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Whitney Zangarine), she herself an ex-pat from Britain, and grows up in a dreadful hurry as he witnesses the steady moral erosion of everyday Germans.
Using John van Druten's adapted play, I am a Camera, as source, the musical's creators didn't enlarge the canvas but implode it, focusing inward on a boardinghouse and the debauched Kit Kat Club, emceed by the oily and smarmy Master of Ceremonies (Nathan Wilson). The two venues are mirror images of each other, one always commenting on the other. Sally uses Cliff for stability, Cliff uses Sally as beard. Except he falls in love with her. She falls for him, too, but won't be tied to domesticity. She has a career to foster, not a child. Intertwined with them are old landlady Fraulein Schneider (Stephanie Rascoe Myers), her devoted and optimistic Jewish beau Herr Schultz (Steve Garfinkel), prostitute Fraulein Kost (icy Jenny Lamb), and Nazi sympathizer Ernst Ludwig (a slick mustachioed Seth Cunningham), out for a quick buck by smuggling, and maybe the possibility of a quick roll in Cliff's bed.
But tying everything in place by spreading its greasy tentacles is the seedy Kit Kat Club, where the lurid Emcee holds court. Wilson is downright mesmerizing in the role made famous by Joel Grey – on Broadway, and then in the 1972 Bob Fosse movie, winning a Tony then an Oscar for his definitive performances. But Wilson possesses something Grey's Emcee never had – youth. He's terribly seductive as he paws the girls and boys alike in the chorus, leering like a boyish Caligula. He revels in his badness and has as much fun in the sordid goings-on as we do witnessing his seamy antics. He twinkles with madness, smirking from the sidelines, pouting in feigned remorse, or enjoying the failed romance of Schneider and Schultz. The world's going to hell, Wilson enacts with lascivious glee, and who's going to stop him? It's a show-stopping role and a show-stopping performance.
No matter how good the show's Cliff is – and Ryder has innocent goodness written all over and a radiant tenor to match – the thankless role invariably fades into the background because of the power of the Emcee. No one can compete with unadulterated evil, ask Faust, Othello, or any Prince Charming.
Zangarine is hard shell. A predator from the beginning, her Sally is one tough cookie, keeping her job because she's sleeping with the club owner. There are some versions of the show where it's hinted that Sally is fairly untalented and unaware of her lack of pizzazz, but it's difficult to square that when Zangarine belts out those signature Kander and Ebb numbers, “Don't Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr,” and, of course, “Cabaret.” Zangarine's Sally, with a bit of Louise Brooks' bob, has seen better days, and when not slugging back straight gin reveals the little girl lost underneath the brittle armor she wears like her fur coat. That she stays lost is one of the ironic glories of the show. There's no happy-ever-after when black boots are stomping outside and throwing bricks through shop windows.
Myers is a perfect hausfrau Schneider. A resigned realist, she relinquishes any future happiness with Schultz when she acquiesces to public pressure. “So What” and “What Would You Do” have got to be two of the saddest songs in the American Songbook. Her book scenes are splendidly played, and she has a poignant catch in her throat that sings volumes about the choice she has and must make. To survive, she remains unloved and alone.
Garfinkel, while no singer, emits empathy for days as Schultz, the ancient fruit seller in love with old Schneider. His eternal optimism, so pure and genuine, buoys him, but his unwillingness to see the unvarnished facts will be his doom. He's a German, certainly no harm will come to him just because he's a Jew. Such is the power of Cabaret and Garfinkel's performance that we hope he will prevail. But as with Cliff and Sally, love will not save him. At the finale, Schultz gets the yellow star slapped on his coat by the Emcee. It's a spiteful gesture of unbearable sadness.
Cabaret is dark and inky, which gets darker and more inky with each new revival. At this moment, I can't think of any other Broadway musical that assaults us and makes us feel guilty, while it entices us with such showbiz allure. It makes us think, remember, get mad. But along with the pain, there's plenty of champagne and girly boys and busty chorines to dull our senses and make us forget our troubles. Who can protest the rise of Hitler when we're distracted by our shameful fantasies?
Director Paul Hope (Alley Theatre resident actor and creator of the lamented former Bayou City Concert Musicals, a Houston Theater Award winner for Best Cabaret) and choreographer Krissy Richmond (former Houston Ballet principal dancer, Broadway star of Chicago, and Houston Theater Award winner for Best Choreography) have glossed Cabaret with unending inventiveness. Their work is subversive and sexy, smooth and seductive, silky and secure. I don't think there's anything more that can be done to cafe chairs than what the Kit Kat girls do to them in “Mein Herr.”
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And it's the little things that register, too. Those clam shell footlights, that antique radio, those telephones straight out of a Joan Crawford movie, those bruises on the neck and arms of the girls, that cloche hat on maestro Heather Tipsword, that fringed chandelier, those Art Deco scones – on Obsidian's shoestring budget, the Weimar Republic lives through Chloe Westfall's set design, Pat Padilla's redolent costumes, and Nikki Johnson's stark lighting.
The ensemble is a joy. The girls: Lexie Jackson, Natalie Nassar, Amanda Marie Parker, Elizabeth Tinder. The boys: Bryan Kaplun, Andrew Russell, Jayden Key, AJ Hernandez. Eyes rimmed with kohl, they shimmy and shake, strut and purr, languidly summoning us to follow them to lands unknown.
But the real Circe remains Nathan Wilson as unrepentant Emcee. Shirtless, sporting black suspenders, bow tie, and skintight black shorts, his mouth slashed in red, he crooks a finger in our direction and beckons us to hell. What a come-on. What a journey. What a show.
Cabaret continues through May 5 at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and Monday, April 30; and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 22 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For information, call 832-889-7837 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $30-$40.