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Set in the seedy underbelly of 1929-30 Berlin, where hungry characters will do almost anything for their next meal, this Boston production of "Cabaret" enables the audience to experience a tiny bit of the terrifying transition to Nazism.
The production creatively evokes the feeling of being in a real Cabaret. Waiting for the play to begin, the audience notices a man with tattoos on his arms seductively smoking on a structure above the stage. Suddenly, another man with a decadent appearance lights up on the left side of the stage. An audience member remarks, "Look, the stage crew is still getting ready," but she is wrong--it's part of the show.
Looking down from the mezzanine, we see members of the audience brought to their seats, playbills in hand, at a Cabaret table in the front of the stage. We begin to understand that the production is creating a sense that we're part of the Cabaret culture in 1929.
The play officially begins with the eye of the camera opening and then shutting in center stage. Then, clad in a full-length black leather coat, the Emcee, disarmingly played by Norbert Leo Butz, takes the stage. Butz seems very German and very gay. The first half of this glitzy production focuses on the multiple sexual identities and partners of the seedy characters who work at the Kit Kat club and reside in Fraulein Schneider's rooming house. It is as a Brechtian world without the harsh politics, a world where people are desperate to keep a roof over their heads.
We enter this world through the eyes of a gay American writer Clifford Bradshaw, sensitively played by Rick Holmes. Cliff and a promiscuous, unemployed Cabaret singer, Sally Bowles (played by Teri Hatcher of Lois and Clark), begin to live together and, despite their sexual differences, each in his own was falls in love. When they learn that Sally is pregnant, even possibly by Cliff, they tentatively decide to raise the child together.
Meanwhile, the house they live in is owned by an older, unmarried German women, Fraulein Schneider, (Barbara Andres), who is being wooed by one of her tenants, a Jewish widower named Herr Schultz, (Dick Latessa). When this elderly couple decides to take the plunge and get married, their engagement party is ruined by Ernst, (Andy Taylor), who takes off his coat to reveal a Nazi armband. When Ernst learns that the man his friend Fraulein Schneider is about to marry is a Jew, he expresses his displeasure and warns her that she should think twice before she takes on such a dangerous role. Observing this exchange, I couldn't help wondering what I would have done in that situation.
Schultz, like too many German Jews of his time, believes his German identity will save him from trouble. Despite the anti-Semitic stirrings around him, he is stubbornly sure that everything will be fine. Dick Latessa's voice is strong and sonorous; his acting moving. He and Barbara Andres steal the show.
When the second act opens, the once-seedy club is even seedier. The Emcee, who seemed somewhat perverse, now appears to be falling apart, perhaps due to drugs. He barely makes it through the same opening number we had seen in the first act. Then, when he introduces us to the orchestra, no one is there. For a time the audience is puzzled, then we realize that the orchestra most likely is behind bars, at concentration camps.
Seeing "Cabaret" performed in 1999, It's interesting to observe how far society has come since 1966, when it was first produced. Back then, it was truly shocking to see plays with bi- or homosexual characters and with heterosexuals in love with homosexuals. But now, with a proliferation of films and TV shows on the topic, the issue has lost it shock value.
The play is based on the Berlin Stories of Christopher Isherwood, who went to Berlin to write a novel, and ended up living with Jean Ross, a promiscuous Cabaret singer on whom the character Sally Bowles is based. John Van Druten then wrote a play, "I Am a Camera" based on Isherwood¹s materials. That play was performed on Broadway in 1951 and was then made into a film. Harold Prince directed the 1966 Broadway production of "Cabaret," starring Joel Grey, which Joe Masteroff adapted from both "I Am a Camera" and Isherwood's Berlin Stories, with John Kander as composer and Fred Ebb as lyricist. That production was later made into a film starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey.
This version of "Cabaret," with its theatrical innovations, was reinvented by director Sam Mendes for a 1993 London production, which was then brought to Broadway and is now touring. This production is co-directed by Rob Marshall, who is also the choreographer.
While in many ways the Nazi era seems far away, the recent rightwing violence in places like Oklahoma, England and Germany; the events in Littleton; and the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo remind us that we should carefully examine the transition to Nazism to make sure that we don't let it happen here.