What images come to mind when someone mentions the musical Cabaret? Well, most people are familiar with the 1972 film directed by Bob Fosse that starred Liza Minelli, Michael York and Joel Grey. It was big, it was flashy, especially given the distinctive Fosse choreography, and it certainly “opened up” the 1966 Broadway show. In a way, it had an epic quality to it, but somehow something got lost in the translation from stage to screen, a sense of what the musical was really about. Yes, it captured the milieu of Weimar Berlin’s decadence but what you probably remember most are the Fosse production numbers. Well, if you travel to Music Theatre of Connecticut in Norwalk you’ll experience a different Cabaret, a more intimate two hours that focuses on the two “love” stories, if you can call them that, and the darkness that descended on the world as the Nazis took power in Germany.
As directed by Kevin Connors, MTC’s executive artistic director and its co-founder, this is, given the size of the venue, a scaled-down version of the musical (for example, there are only two Kit Kat Klub girls), but that allows the audience to focus on what is most important, which is the emotional relationships of the show’s primary characters: Sally Bowles (Desiree Davar) and Cliff Bradshaw (Nicolas Dromard), and Fraulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser) and Herr Shultz (Jim Schilling). The musical numbers written by John Kander and Fred Webb, take on deeper meanings, especially so for the show’s signature song, “Cabaret,” sung by Sally.
Set in Berlin in the 1930s, and based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, it begins with Bradshaw’s arrival in Berlin after meeting the somewhat mysterious Ernst Ludwig (Andrew Foote) on a train. Bradshaw is quickly introduced to Berlin’s demi monde as represented by the Kit Kat Klub, with its gender-challenging Emcee (Eric Scott Kincaid) and “the toast of Mayfair,” Sally Bowes.
The inherent decadence of the era (and the denial of what is occurring in Germany as the Nazis rise to power), is captured in the opening number, “Willkommen,” sung in a suggestive, sensuous manner by Kincaid. The song suggests that the Klub’s patrons can disregard the growing ugliness of the real world because everything is “beautiful” inside the confines of the Klub.
Sally is quickly drawn to Cliff, and in a song that borders on despair mixed with hope (“Maybe this Time”, a song Davar delivers with a great deal of controlled emotion), her character is established: she is a tarnished dreamer, a romantic in a world ruled by harsh reality, because “everybody loves a winner, so nobody loves me.”
Cliff finds lodgings in a boardinghouse run by Fraulein Schneider, and this allows for the introduction of the second plot line, for Herr Shultz also rooms there, and he, though shy, is smitten with his landlady. Since he is an importer and seller of fruit, Shultz, who is Jewish, woos Schneider with fruit, and eventually proposes via a pineapple, leading to Kanengeiser and Schilling creating a moving moment as they sing the tender ballad, “Married.”
Many familiar with the various iterations of the musical may be disappointed that songs they expect to hear have been excised from this production. Missing, for example, are “Mein Herr” and “Money,” but this production can be viewed as a drama with music, with the emphasis on drama. As such, the focus on denial becomes crystal-clear: Fraulein Schneider turns away from her intended husband because of the growing anti-Semitism in Germany; Herr Shultz denies the danger he is in by claiming that nothing bad can happen to him because he is, after all, German; Sally opts to reject Cliff’s offer to go with him to America because she cannot embrace happiness and, instead, clings to the false world that is the cabaret. The only character who seems to accept the inherent tawdriness of Weimar Berlin is Fraulein Kost (the frisky Hillary Ekwall), the other Kit Kat Klub girl. She services sailors to pay her rent, with an attitude that this is just the way of the world – people use each other just to get by.
MTC’s production of Cabaret may not be what many patrons had been anticipating, but to truly enjoy and understand what Connors has crafted it’s necessary to set aside preconceived notions, for it is essentially a perceptive character study of four people caught up in a world that is becoming darker by the moment. Hence, when Sally sings “Cabaret” near the end of the show it is not a glowing tribute to a certain lifestyle but rather a desperate attempt to justify that lifestyle, to justify denial. After all, “Life is a cabaret,” isn’t it?
This is, in essence, a dark story, emphasized by RJ Romeo’s lighting scheme. Carousel had its dark moments, but they were balanced against the show’s closing number, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Such is not the case with Cabaret, for several of the main characters do, in fact, in the end walk alone to their doom. Kudos to Connors and the cast for bringing to life a disturbing, moving tale of lost souls in a world verging on madness, a story that suggests that you can’t stay in the cabaret forever.
Cabaret runs through April 14. For tickets or more information go to www.musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883.