(The company of Cabaret; Portrait by Egon Schiele, c. 1917; “The Carnival” by Max Beckmann, c. 1943; Ms. Hawkins as Sally Bowles)
I rung in the New Year at the Kit Kat Club, accompanied by boys and girls in lacy pants. Theatre Latte Da and the Hennepin Theater Trust set 2014 spinning with a scintillating production of Cabaret directed by Peter Rothstein.
Kira Lace Hawkins brings steel and nerve to Sally Bowles, the darling of a Weimar-era burlesque house who dallies with American interloper Cliff Bradshaw. Though she projects a carefree attitude, she harbors grave fears, doubts, and insecurities about her health and happiness. Ms. Hawkins handles both poles knowingly.
James Detmar is endearing as a Jewish fruit vendor Herr Shultz who courts Sally Wingert’s stubborn landlady, Frau Schneider, in a subplot that complements the main story. Frau Schneider’s ultimate decision to avert personal risk and disavow her neighbors reflects a dishearteningly accurate historical fact. She finds herself in the same position as the speaker in Martin Niemoller’s 1947 poem: “they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew…”
Without a doubt the grand toast goes to Tyler Michaels, the impish, erotic, acrobatic Master of Ceremonies. Mr. Michaels curates the evening with gestures grand and small, but his totalizing power is always known. As expected, his showmanship and wit are off the charts. More startlingly, he fills the eleven o-clock number “I Don’t Care” with longing and despondence, suspended on a trapeze above a violent street scene. He bleeds every last drop of melancholy from the song before touching down just in time for the chilling conclusion.
Only Sean Dooley has not fully emerged as his character, Cliff, but this may be due in part to the fact that Cliff has not fully emerged as himself. An inchoate novelist seeking amusement and inspiration, Cliff shows up at the Kit Kat Klub and finds himself called upon by both girls and boys. Although he permits Bobby (or was it Victor?) to kiss him briefly on New Year’s Eve, he does not indulge — or acknowledge — his dueling desire for the remainder of the show. (The original 1966 book elided all homosexual references and I suspect that recent revisions have struggled to restore them without altering the plotline.) Even if the re-imagined version lets Cliff out of the closet, it still focuses primarily on his vexed attempt to play straight.
Kate Sutton-Johnson’s unit set is suitably extravagant and seedy, with tarnished brass fittings and shattered window panes that evoke both dive bars and Kristallnacht. Richard Hamson’s panoply of skimpy and refulgent costumes is a remarkable study in period and color. Marcus Dillard’s lighting matches the show’s range of emotion, from brooding to effervescent.
American theatre historians point to Cabaret as the first fully-fledged concept musical, a musical whose meaning is derived from its form as much as its content. The Kit Kat Club is, of course, the focal point of the evening, but it resides in a decadent, authoritarian world that increasingly resembles a cabaret. Moreover, the entire theatrical event is structured as a night on the town; performers and audience members comingle in the house, in the wings, and on the stage. This alignment of form and content produces polyvalent meanings — meanings both expressed and implied.
Choreographer Mathew Michael Farrell’s ability to focus our attention on the analogies at work in this show is nowhere more clearly on display than the entr-acte. Dressed in androgynous sequined uniforms, the ensemble dances buoyantly en masse. Just as the kick line swells to a climax, however, the music changes from a can-can to a march and the dancers begin to mark time. In an instant they reveal swastikas pasted to their breasts and form a marching platoon that ushers in the second act.
And boy! what a darkly comic second act. The sexy patina of act one wears off and the audience confronts the soiled reality of this history. Cliff’s decision to smuggle contraband merchandise into Berlin prompts the M.C. to perform a searing ode to “Money.” When Nazi pressure strains Herr Shultz and Frauline Schneider’s courtship, the M.C. mockingly reflects, in a shuffle-step number that involves a girl in a gorilla costume, “if you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” These numbers correspond to and comment on the plot points so incisively that the audience registers their significance immediately.
The strength of this production is its ability to attract and repulse the audience. The ease with which high-kicks become goose-steps and glitter turns to dust is the mark of master storytelling. The concept ultimately finds direct expression in the title song “Cabaret” with the blunt lyric “life is a cabaret, oh chum, and I love the cabaret.” Sally finally admits that her decadent existence is meretricious, but vows to shine on until she burns out.
Ms. Hawkins, by the way, claims this hackneyed song for herself. With mascara streaming from her eyes, she hustles onto the stage looking like an Egon Schiele portrait come to life. Ms. Hawkins grips us until the desperate end, when the stage retracts, spotlight shrinks, and Sally implodes along with the world around her.