A Marvelous Miniature "Cabaret"
By Geary Danihy
The hottest ticket in town right now should be for “Cabaret,” which recently opened at the 45-seat MTC MainStage in Westport. Hot because it’s probably “Cabaret” as you’ve never seen it before, pared down to its bare essentials and presented with verve, style and a great deal of feeling by a superb cast.
Directed by Kevin Connors, MTC’s executive artistic director, and choreographed by Lainie Munro (who gives a nod to, but does not slavishly follow the Fosse format), this “Cabaret” is more intimate, and thus more pointed and, at times, heart-wrenching, than the film version you are probably most familiar with, and it features Kander and Ebb songs that were in the original production but were cut for the film or assigned to different characters.
The book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood, focuses on a young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (Ryan Reilly) who comes to Berlin at the time of the rise of the Nazi party, seeking inspiration for his novel. He immediately connects with Ernst (Daniel Robert Sullivan), who, unbeknownst to Cliff, is making money runs for the Nazis. Ernst directs the American to a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (Dorothy Stanley), where he soon meets fellow borders Fraulein Kost (Marty Bongfeldt), a dancer at the Kit Kat Klub, and Herr Schultz (Stuart Zagnit), the owner of a fruit store who also happens to be Jewish. On his first night out on the town he drops by the Kit Kat Klub, hosted by the Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) and has a table-to-table phone conversation with another Kit Kat dancer, Sally Bowles (Melissa Carlile-Price), a waif-like British ex-pat who “absolutely adores” his spoken English.
The lives of these characters quickly intertwine as Germany’s political skies darken, and much of the musical deals with various aspects of the Nazi’s rise to power and the decisions individuals must make (or not make) when confronted with the growing terror. In this focused version, the audience’s attention is riveted on the two doomed romances that are at the heart of the show: Cliff’s love for Sally, who refuses to see what is happening around her and clings desperately to the philosophy that “Life is a cabaret,” and Herr Schultz’s more mature love for Fraulein Schneider, equally doomed because of his heritage.
Given that all of this -- the Kit Kat production numbers -- the arguments between Sally and Cliff -- Herr Schultz’s touching courtship of Fraulein Schneider -- occurs mere feet from where the audience sits means, among other things, that the audience is inexorably drawn into the milieu in which these characters live and work. It is powerful theater, especially given the quality of the cast.
Kincaid’s Emcee is lascivious and brash, but you can see beneath the facade, see the concern, the disdain for the rising powers, and the fear. His Emcee is perhaps the most vulnerable I’ve ever seen, and his final exit, executed brilliantly, is one of false bravado -- the “clown” facing off against the brute. It’s a star turn, equaled by Carlile-Price’s Sally, for Carlile-Price manages to convey a brittle gayety masking both fear and self-doubt, and her take on the musical’s signature song, “Cabaret” (sung just after she has told Cliff she has aborted their child), rips your heart out, for she is spitting in the face of death, defiantly walking away from her only hope of salvation by embracing the ephemeral.
Most revelatory, however, is the fragile romance between Stanley’s Fraulein Schneider and Zagnit’s Herr Schultz, for these characters, given song assignments and song cuts, were essentially shoved to the side in the film version. Here they come to the fore, and in scene after touching scene (including one that focuses on a pineapple), Stanley and Zagnit, with great poise, delicacy and feeling, present the musical’s essential moral conundrum -- what do you do in the face of tyranny? Do you bow and accept, believing you will survive as you have before, or do you deny its very existence, claiming that, after all, it cannot be as bad as people say?
What makes this production so satisfying is that the entire cast, including Johnny Orenberg, who does yeoman work as a Kit Kat waiter, several lustful German sailors, a Nazi rabble-rouser and a German guard, can not only sing and dance, they can act up a storm. There’s not a false note or forced emotion the entire evening – Sullivan’s Ludwig is subtly menacing; Bongfeldt’s Fraulein Kost suitably louche and world-weary; Reilly’s Bradshaw engaging and earnest. Coupled with the riveting performances given by Stanley, Zagnit, Kincaid and Carlile-Price, it all make for a marvelous evening of musical theater.
“Cabaret” at MTC MainStage runs through Nov. 20, which means you only have two more weekends to see a version of “Cabaret” that will stay with you long after you leave the theater. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com