Based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Cabaret chronicles the relationship between Clifford Bradshaw and Sally Bowles, and the rise of the Nazi Regime in 1930’s Germany. Something of a roman a clef, this musical (written by the brilliant John Kander and Fred Ebb) takes its central metaphor from The Kit Kat Club, a squalid nightclub that features Sally, and becomes a refuge for patrons to ignore the atrocities that are spreading like poison. Cabaret’s strength is in its irony, after all, there would seem to be little harm in diversion, yet the flaw in Sally’s character is her disingenuousness. Her refusal to admit that she (and so many others) is using hedonism to blunt her conscience. Her worldliness may surpass Cliff’s youthful idealism, but when he offers to rescue her from the iminent spread of Nazism, she chooses to stay behind. The sly songs of Kander and Ebb initially come across as mischievous fun, but taken in the the broader political context, they take on a depth and insouciance that hints at despair. When Fraulein Schneider sings the chorus of So What? : “For the sun will rise and the moon will set, and you learn how to settle for what you get,” it doesn’t sound merely like capitulation, it feels cynical, jaundiced.
Director Ryan Matthieu Smith starts out with guns blazing. Wilkommen is accompanied by a circus motif, with clowns, a strong man,etc, with the emcee sporting a top hat decorated with feathers and a death mask. Throughout the evening certain images linger in the mind, a waifish blond with big, sad eyes playing the ukulele, the emcee wearing a fez, Sally Bowles in an oversized birdcage, a particular number where the dancers are clad in black S & M acoutrements. Michael Albee’s choreography is certainly imaginative, smart and on point. The problematic aspect of this production, really, is ambitious aims. Whenever we are dealing with loaded content like genocide, moral bankruptcy, and the holocaust, one must tread lightly, otherwise it feels too manipulative, too heavy-handed. One of Cabaret’s most famous numbers, If You Could See Her, seems absurd and funny, when we see the emcee dancing with a gorilla. It works because it’s only revealed at the end that it’s actually about antisemitism. Another well known number, Two Ladies (a farcical piece extolling menage a trois) features a blonde with pigtails and no arms. It takes a moment to catch on, it isn’t obvious at first. But then you see her arms end at the elbows. This sort of grotesque nod to fetishism is daring in its way, but because it’s so marginal, so implausible (who in the audience of The Kit Kat would enjoy this?) we lose our bearings. Smith’s point is clear, but we must have a modicum of verisimilitude. It’s not enough to be thematically consistent when our credulity is stretched. One can’t help but admire Smith’s originality of vision and boldness of execution, even if he gets somewhat carried away.
The cast is avid, diligent and robust, throwing themselves into this demanding production with spirit and dedication. As I’ve already suggested, it’s hard to go wrong with Kander and Ebb, and this absorbing, layered interpretation of Cabaret. Smith has clearly reflected very carefully on the theme of intolerance, demonization and the collapse of civilization. At the heart of this tongue-in-cheek parable is the sad hypocrisy you can find at work throughout America and the rest of the world : persecution is a perfectly acceptable political strategy, as long as it’s not happening to you.
Garland Civic Theatre presents Cabaret, playing October 23rd through November 15th, 2014. Granville Arts Center, 300 North Fifth Street, Garland, Texas 75040. 972-205-2790. www.GarlandArtsBoxOffice.com