Story: “There was a cabaret and a Master of Ceremonies, and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany, and it was the end of the world, and I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both fast asleep.”
So says American writer Cliff Bradshaw, describing his experience in Germany for a brief period beginning in 1929. Following its defeat in World War I, Germany for a while flourished as a haven for artists, scientists and bohemians who welcomed the challenges of life in the early 20th century with novel ideas and bold experimentation. In search of creative juices, Bradshaw is smitten with the intoxication of the thriving night life in Berlin, personified by the persuasively decadent Kit Kat Klub.
There he meets Sally Bowles, an English troubadour in perennial search of a good time. The sexually ambivalent Cliff soon becomes enchanted with Sally’s bewitching ways, even as his new friend Ernst Ludwig has him running mysterious errands that help the struggling Cliff pay his rent. When he sees Ernst’s chilling reaction to the engagement of landlady Fraulein Schneider to Jewish merchant Herr Schultz, though, Bradshaw realizes that Adolf Hitler’s rapidly ascending Nazi Party is bringing swift and deadly change to Germany’s short-lived freedoms.
Highlights: Cabaret has a rich and noble lineage that forms the foundation that has made it a shining star in the pantheon of great American musicals of the 20th century. It traces back to writer Christopher Isherwood’s tales, The Berlin Stories, about his own time in Weimar Germany. In turn, John van Druten penned his 1951 drama, I Am a Camera, using Isherwood’s writings as source material. Van Druten’s work was the basis for the subsequent 1966 musical, Cabaret.
Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who received a Tony Award nomination for Best Director for the 2010 Broadway revival of Ragtime, gets The Rep’s 2013-14 season off in glorious fashion as director and choreographer of its opening presentation. It’s an intriguing effort that doubtless would satisfy the show’s creators, author Joe Masteroff, lyricist Fred Ebbs and composer John Kander, as well as Harold Prince, guiding light of the original Broadway effort nearly 50 years ago.
Other Info: Set amidst changing political climate and social upheaval, Cabaret is a fitting metaphor for America in the ‘60s as well as our contemporary era. Thus, it remains as much relevant as it is an uneasy depiction of the times and conditions that led to World War II. As Cliff remarks, he and Sally (and many more people such as them) were “fast asleep” as freedom was being stripped.
Hunter Ryan Herdlicka fully inhabits the role of Cliff and anchors this particular interpretation. Dodge understands, and Herdlicka conveys, Cliff’s place as a stranger in a strange land, a man who eventually realizes he needs to remove himself from Berlin and the encroaching horrors to regain his perspective. It’s a deeply moving and affecting portrayal that underpins other performances.
Webster Conservatory alumnus Nathan Lee Graham displays the Emcee in all his perversely impersonal nature. While he serves as our guide to the forbidden pleasures of the Kit Kat Klub, he hides his own emotions and persona behind his omnipresent mask of makeup. Graham glides fluidly across the stage in a variety of numbers, such as the sordid Money Song or the alluring opening number, Willkommen, accentuating Dodge’s classy dance moves.
As Sally Bowles, Liz Pearce is slinky and seductive and appropriately addle-brained, careful never to think two steps ahead lest she miss out on some pleasure or another. Pearce is fabulously fetching, whether impishly singing her request to Don’t Tell Mama or unveiling the title tune in all its intricacy and multiple meanings as her world comes crashing down.
Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt provides a beautifully atmospheric set that includes, as he writes in the program, “painted wall murals by George Grosz (that) give the place an erotic and dangerous edge.” So they do, as does the catwalk above the set, beyond the garish marquee, where ominous-looking men shine glaring lights on patrons at the club.
Christy Crowl provides expert music supervision, direction and orchestrations, while associate music director and keyboardist Henry Palkes leads the back-of-stage band comprised of drummer Erin Elstner, Ann Muehlmann on bass, Elsie Parker on woodwinds, trombonist Marquita Reef and trumpet player Mary Weber.
Angela Wendt’s costumes are a suitable match for the sedate Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz as well as the risqué Kit Kat dancers, and John Lasiter’s lighting illuminates the action with varying degrees of intensity to match the appropriate mood. Acme Sound Partners adds sound design. A special thanks of appreciation goes to stage manager Glenn Dunn as he celebrates 40 years at The Rep with this production.
Mary Gordon Murray and Michael Marotta make a handsome, well-matched pair as the star-crossed lovers, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Dana Winkle has the attitude, slinky look and appeal of street-walker Fraulein Kost, while Blake Ellis carries well the banality of evil as Ernst Ludwig.
The impressive supporting cast includes Bradley Benjamin, Angelica Richie, Jolina Javier, Timothy Hughes, Carl Draper, Sean Maddox, Blake Clendenin and Dennis Kenney.
Cabaret is a show that never seems to lose its power or its allure. Certainly, The Rep’s presentation brings its timeless relevance to the fore in impeccable style.
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through October 6
Tickets: $20-$76; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.