Published in Gay and Lesbian Times March 06, 2003
It’s been re-fashioned more times than Madonna.
“Cabaret” started out as several short stories by English novelist Christopher Isherwood (né William Bradshaw — remember the name!): “Sally Bowles,” written in 1937 and “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939), which were published together as “Berlin Stories” (1946). The book became a play, “I Am A Camera” by John Van Druten in 1952, and then a film (1955) and finally, the inspiration for Kander and Ebb’s multiple Tony-winning musical, which premiered in 1966, was made into an Oscar-winning (Minelli-starring) movie in 1972, and then was revived on Broadway in 1987 and again in 1998. Each version was slightly altered, with addition and subtraction of songs, characters and provocative lines (like the incendiary capper to the tutu-clad gorilla number, “If You Could See Her ” …”she wouldn’t look Jewish at all”).
Now along comes Sean Murray, who himself played the Emcee at the San Diego Repertory Theatre seven years ago, and is now directing a production at North Coast Repertory Theatre, where he served as artistic director for several years. His “Cabaret” is definitely an amalgam, maintaining the seedy, degenerate feel of 1930 Berlin, retaining the “Jewish” line and the relationship between the pragmatic German landlady, Fraulein Schneider and the Jewish fruit-man, Herr Schultz (which was absent from the movie), adding the Liza torch-song “Maybe This Time” (which, oddly, doesn’t appear in the show’s program) but not the shocking Sam Mendes ending of the recent revival, which changes the tone of the piece.
With all the pastiche, there seems to be something missing, and it feels like it’s ‘the edge.’ The Nazi undertone of the entire evening is muted; the emcee is less menacing, though he’s aptly androgynous and smirky. And we’re not quite sure who he’s intended to be. (At the end of the Mendes production, still running on Broadway, he turns his back on the audience, obviously headed, as is the rest of the cast, for the transport trains to the camps… and when he takes off his storm-trooper coat and turns back, he’s sporting both a pink triangle and a yellow star; it’s a heart-stopping moment). This isn’t such a Nazi-driven fear-fest; Murray may be trying to emphasize more of the ‘it-couldn’t-happen here, everything-will-turn-out-all right element that may be more relevant today. But it detracted from any potential emotional response to the musical, which typically veers from laughter to terror. Here it’s easy to feel removed from the horror of it all.
Another choice on Murray’s part was focusing more on the drama than the music. Each of the leads is a far better actor than singer, and while that furthers the narrative, it disappoints with the fabulous score, which is wonderfully played by don Le Master (in schoolgirl drag) and a great backup band. David Brannen’s choreography is fine, though Mike Durst’s lighting is very dim. In an interesting departure from the norm, the Kit Kat Girls (and Boys!) are an appealingly motley array of the not-perfect. But their singing is high quality.
The truly knockout performance is by Jeremiah Lorenz as the Emcee. He is irresistibly attractive in his oversexed ambisexuality, and he moves and sings terrifically. Glorious, charismatic performance. As Sally Bowles, K.B. Mercer seems more delusional than dissipated and drugged out. Greg Tankersley makes the most of the sometimes-thankless role of Cliff Bradshaw (Isherwood’s namesake and alter-ego), the sexually confused (here frankly bisexual) American who becomes Sally’s roommate and boyfriend, dragging us along on his journey from fantasy to harsh reality about what’s happening around him.
Dennis J. Scott makes an extremely convincing Ernst, the Nazi sympathizer, and Linda Libby and Jim Chovick are heartbreaking in their doomed late-life relationship. But almost everyone, except Lorenz, would do better talking than singing their numbers. And though the seats rumble beneath us at the end, that feeling of ominous, oncoming disaster should have been represented more potently onstage. With all the talk of war and loss of personal rights, it’s a very good time to see “Cabaret” again, because it’s an important musical, and perhaps even a haunting, compelling wake-up call. The party may be just about over for us, too.
“CABARET” runs through April 6 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach; 858-481-1055; 888-776-NCRT.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.