Entertainment » Theatre

Cabaret

by Rachel  Breitman
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jul 14, 2017
Cabaret

"Cabaret," now at the Kennedy Center, is a story for dark and desperate times. Set in 1931 Berlin, it tells the story of an American writer who at first becomes enamored with a decadent festive Germany, only to pull the curtain and realize that fascism is creeping onto the scene. Following up on "Hedwig," which just closed at the Eisenhower Theatre, it also tells the story of lost souls trapped in an unforgiving world.

The play, written by Joe Masteroff, with music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb, is at first jazzy and vibrant, starting with an enticingly dirty "Wilkommen," but ultimately dark and gloomy, ending with a sorrowful "Cabaret Finale" that sounds like a death march.

The musical, which was adapted from John Van Druten's 1951 play "I Am a Camera," and inspired by the 1939 novel by Charles Isherwood, called "Goodbye Berlin," follows the sexually confused American protagonist Cliff Bradshaw who is traveling through Europe on a tour of self-exploration.

He is enamored by the freewheeling lifestyle in Berlin's Kit Kat Klub, drawn simultaneously by both a female singer named Sally Bowles and a male musician named Bobby who exist in an exciting underworld of Germany at the cusp of Hitler's rise to power. While the free sexual rules tempt him, he recognizes that behind all the bawdy song lyrics and gyrating dance routines only distract a world sliding towards genocide.

This Roundabout Theatre Company tour, directed by BT McNicholl, is based upon the 1993 adaptation of the play, originally directed by Sam Mendes and co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall for London's Donmar Warehouse.

While the 1966 Broadway production showed Berlin as free-spirited, fun and lively, this version features Kit Kat girls who appear more desperate and dangerous than sexy, clothed in ripped fishnets and ill-fitting lingerie, their eyes black-lined and vacant and their hair greasy and lank. The costumes, by William Ivey Long are more sad than alluring.

The set by Robert Brill is also dark, though creatively mixes the Kit Kat Klub with the German Boarding House through the use of various doors, stairs, and a two level set illuminated by bright, garish lights. The club's seedy underworld ironically appears from above and around, including musicians who double as dancers, sliding up and down the stairs onto the foreground. This isn't a club full of joyous exuberance as much as nihilist -- though talented -- desperation.

As the master of ceremonies and the story's oversexualized narrator, Jon Peterson is menacing and lewd in a role originally performed by Alan Cummings in the 1993 version. Showing off his taut arms and gaunt face, he looks haunted and menaced even when he trades ribald and flirtatious barbs with the members of the audience.

He grows increasingly distraught as the story continues, until we realize in the last scene that the master of ceremonies is in a concentration camp, labeled as both a Jew and a homosexual. This twist in the story originated in the 1993 play and conflicts with some other versions of the story, where he instead reveals a swastika on his arm.

Similarly, good-time girl Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin), though cute as a button in her blond bobbed fur coated pixie frame, eventually shows herself to be a worn-out, make-up smeared alcoholic, desperate for the love of a man she knows cannot love her completely.

Her transformation embodies Cliff Bradshaw's (Benjamin Eakeley) brutal realization that nothing beautiful can actually grow in Berlin's poisoned soil. Bowles remains indifferent to the growing fascism that frightens Bradshaw, and his attempts to rescue her from the tawdry life of the Kit Kat Klub become borderline violent, as he roughly manhandles her while he tries to force her into a more pure lifestyle against her will.

The play rapidly descends into a bleak nightmare. There is a hope that the love between Bradshaw and Bowles, and the German boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider and her elderly renter, Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz, can survive even in this darkest tortured world. But both love stories are quickly doomed to fail. There doesn't seem to be much hope for their world, as it ricochets into crisis.

"Cabaret" runs through August 6 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets or information, call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

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