Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan




Cabaret
Depravity and Disarray in Weimar Germany, 1929-30


The Cast of Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper
The Cast of Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper

When one first views Michael Gianfrancesco's black, rigid, metallic set for Cabaret, one is filled with apprehension. "That's it? They're going to stage the entire musical in that contraption?" It looks like a Nautilus exercise apparatus on steroids, a system of steel vertical pieces forming a hub that supports winding staircases with a few platforms thrown in to serve as stations that lead up to a single platform at the top from where one fully expects an actor to eventually leap. It's a see-through mass of vertical steel studs that look cold and mean and hurtful, and there are lights set strategically for various purposes, some at the end to highlight a death by hanging rather than the anticipated jump from the top.

This structure rotates on a circular stage just as our earth moves time, day after day, in mechanical clockwork, allowing action at the front and sides, often actors grouped along the stairs and our views, sometimes slightly obstructed, but allowing us to see through the set. There is nowhere to hide.

As the musical evolves, one slowly realizes the brusque "beauty" of this device as a clever metaphor for Weimar Berlin. The Weimar Republic is the name that marks the democratic federal republic established in 1919 to replace the imperial government, and named after Weimar, the city where the constitutional assembly took place. During this period, and well into the succeeding Nazi era, the official name of the state was the German Reich. In Cabaret, we witness the rise of the Nazis through clever use of colour (red), the swastika logo and increasing physical brutality.

Doesn't sound like much fun, does it, but take heart. Peter Hinton is a gifted director who does his homework. Last year before taking on his wonderful rendition of Lady Windermere's Fan he read everything that Oscar Wilde had written, remarking that he didn't care much for the poetry. With Cabaret, his attention to detail is excellent and the props employed are creative from rocks breaking a Jewish storekeeper's glass window translated into a giant red trapezoid, actors holding Hitler's Mein Kampf books with the pages on fire, numbers on the floor simulating a telephone connection between cabaret tables, a chorus of actors thrusting out pineapples in their hands in between soft moans, wearing pointed conical hats on their heads while on the staircase in caricature of the Statue of Liberty, and on and on. Hinton keeps us on our toes.

Cabaret is based on a book written by Christopher Isherwood, set in 1931 Berlin as the Nazis emerge; it is based upon the nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, and it revolves around the 19-year-old English cabaret performer Sally Bowles ( Deborah Hay) and her relationship with the young American writer Cliff Bradshaw ( Gray Powell). Hay uses her lithe body to remain employed by Max ( Lorne Kennedy) at the club, moves in with Powell who happens to be bi-sexual, and they produce a child that is aborted. (Yes, more symbolism.) There is another doomed romance between German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider ( Corrine Koslo) and her older suitor Herr Schultz, (Benedict Campbell) a Jewish fruit vendor. Overseeing the entire action and on stage for the complete musical is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub ( Juan Chioran) with spiked hair and pale face, no slouch himself in sexual matters with a fondness for threesomes. If you are counting metaphors, add the club, symbolizing the decaying Weimar.

Benedict Campbell as Herr Schultz in Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper The song and dance group often seem like zombies, their lack of clothing, not a turn-on with the dark lines applied to their faces. (Tired of metaphors?) The musical numbers are not exactly items you will recall later except for a few tunes such as "Maybe This Time" which Hay knocks out of the ballpark and everything that Chioran sings. Dressed like a clown in Cirque du Soleil, he dominates this musical, often even by just slowly walking in a circular route to provide Hay with a microphone (then to take it away). He lurks in the background, but is always in sight. His rendition of "Wilkommen" and "Money" are remarkable and his "If You Could See Her," a parody of a Jew compared to a gorilla is as powerful as all of the Nazi propaganda in the play put together.

Hay performs admirably in this tough role, but could be edgier with her dependence on gin and sex while Powell as Bradshaw, her love interest, is a bit over-the-top in American earnestness given the depravity of which he is part; Koslo is solid as always as Fräulein Schneider who decides that the whimsical Herr Schultz is not living in the real world, (Campbell who thinks that he is safe because he is foremost a German then a Jew); Jay Turvey is convincingly sinister as Ernst Ludwig a Nazi smuggler; but it's Chioran who is the undisputed star and thoroughly mesmerizing. His performance makes Cabaret a must-see!

Peter Hinton Director's Notes (below) from the program begin with two appropriate quotes for the sometimes 30-40% of us Canadians who often choose not to vote in elections.
     "All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." (Edmund Burke)
     "If you're not against all this, you're for it!" (Cliff Bradshaw in Cabaret)

"When the musical Cabaret premiered in 1966, the United States was in a turbulent period of activism and conflict. That year alone saw the formation of the National Organization for Women, the Black Panther Party and the first unofficial Gay Pride Parade; 170,000 Americans were drafted into the Vietnam War and another 180,000 had enlisted; President Lyndon Johnson vowed that America should remain in Vietnam until "Communist aggression" had ended. And while Martin Luther King led a civil rights march in Chicago, Truman Capote's Black and White Ball was hailed the "Party of the Century" in New York. "The Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" and the first Acid Test was held in California, where Ronald Reagan was elected Governor. The United States was a place Christopher Isherwood called "a tragic country... like every Promised Land." But then again, he could have been describing Weimar Berlin - the city of inspiration for his Berlin Stories, upon which the musical is based."

"Both periods are filled with change, protest and uncertainty, and it was this comparison that fuelled director Hal Prince's desire to adapt Isherwood's Berlin for the Broadway stage. Prince felt that a depiction of pre-Nazi Germany was only relevant if his collaborators could find "a reason for telling the story parallel to contemporary problems." Cabaret chronicles the tragic experiment in democracy which was the Weimar Republic, but also asks the question, "What would you do?" if faced with the choices and pressures of this time. It changed the Broadway musical in both form and content. It was Prince's first experiment in making a show that placed narrative secondary to a central message or metaphor. It inspired him to gravitate towards the belief that musicals could challenge audiences as well as entertain - and that subjects which made people uncomfortable, that made an audience confront their world in all its contradictions, were possible and worth doing.

"One cannot with certainty say "never again" and Godwin's Law (the inevitability of a Hitler or Nazi comparison arising during any online debate) notwithstanding, we live on the dreams of those who gave their lives for us to do so. The enduring power of Cabaret lies not only in its ability to place us in a time in history - but to hold a mirror up to our own."

   

  • Benedict Campbell as Herr Schultz, Corrine Koslo as Fraulein Schneider and the Cast of Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper
  • Deborah Hay as Sally Bowles and Gray Powell as Cliff Bradshaw in Cabaret. Photo by Emily Cooper
  • Deborah Hay, Sally Bowles, Jacqueline Thair, Lulu, Tess Benger, Texas, Julain Molnar, Rosie Photo by Emily Cooper

  • Gray Powell as Cliff Bradshaw and the cast of Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper
  • Juan Chioran as the Emcee in Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper
  • Juan Chioran as the Emcee in Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper


   




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TorontoStage.com interviews Juan Chioran


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