I’ve been wondering recently why the most popular cultural events on campus involve chants like “Yeah Disiac!” and “Yeah BodyHype!.” A culture of intimidation surrounds the arts, and it’s almost impossible for non-modern-dance-troupes to sell out any spaces on campus. After seeing “Cabaret” Saturday night, I emerged, almost three hours later, pleasantly surprised, both at the large turnout (a sold out show at Intime) and at the relative quality of Rachael Timinsky and Jess Bonney’s production.
“Cabaret” is Kander and Ebb’s most exceptional collaboration, a brilliant musical that tells the story of the end of the Weimar Republic, of the decadence and despair that led directly to Hitler’s rise. The show follows two star-crossed lovers, British Sally Bowles (Suzanna Sanchez) and American Cliff Bradshaw (Jed Petersen) who fall in love at the Kit Kat Club, a Berlin cabaret. As they romp through Berlin, they encounter a host of characters, who are all eventually implicated in the Nazi ascendancy. Their old friend, Ernst Ludwig (Ben Rice-Townsend), turns out to be a Nazi leader. Their stern landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Amy Coenen), leaves her lover, Herr Schulz (Alex Fiorentino) because he is Jewish. The half-dressed girls and cross-dressing boys of the Kit Kat Club are integral parts of a society that has completely lost its moral compass. “Cabaret” is an entertaining show with an intensely moral core.
In many productions of “Cabaret,” the audience is itself implicated in the Nazis’ rise. The Intime show tries for the same effect, albeit unsuccessfully. Before the house closed and the show began, the Kit Kat girls come on to the audience. But their sexiness seems forced, and they do not actually make the audience uncomfortable.
For the most part, though, the acting is fantastic, especially for a student production. As the Emcee of the Kit Kat Club, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins does a fantastic job. He plays the part perfectly, with a brilliant twinkle in his eyes alongside with a nuanced melancholy. Sanchez is ravishing as Sally Bowles (I didn’t know her before, but now I think I’ll ask her to house parties), and even though her accent and acting were occasionally grating and skittish, she is clearly the star. Alex Fiorentino is terrific as the awkward Herr Schulz, who insists he is a German and that the troubles “will pass.” Unfortunately, his voice is significantly weaker than his acting. Similarly, Petersen plays a very good Bradshaw, but is another very good actor with a very mediocre voice.
“Cabaret”’s choreography is surprisingly good, and I particularly appreciated the echoes of Nazi storm-trooper type in the dance movements. However, there is little standout singing, and with the exception of a couple moving numbers by Sanchez and Jacobs-Jenkins – a brilliant “Life is a Cabaret,” by Sanchez, and a stirring rendition of “I Don’t Care Much,” by Jacobs-Jenkins – the music is pretty mediocre. For much of the show, the chorus does not feel full-throated enough when it joins in the larger numbers.
At one point, everyone standing in front of me on stage was Jewish, which I found somewhat amusing. But if WASPS can play shtetl Jews in the latest Broadway production of Fiddler, then I suppose Jews can play Nazis. It’s a crazy multicultural world we live in.
This production only really discovers itself in the second act. As the show goes on, Petersen gets better, and becomes less detached; in a climactic scene with Sanchez, they both finally explode in true emotion. Similarly, Coenen and Fiorentino are fireworks. Ben Rice-Townsend underplays Ludwig’s creepiness in the first act, but makes up for it – mostly – with a stellar comeback in the second. Josh Goldsmith’s solo rendition of “Fatherland” is beautifully done, and sets the stage for “Cabaret”’s dark finale.
Toward the end of the second act, “Cabaret” finally hits us over the head with its message, as Sally asks Cliff : “Politics – what has that got to do with us?” Cliff gives the correct answer, the answer we’ve been taught for the last fifty years: “If you’re not against this, you’re for it.” Sally’s realization should also be the audience’s realization. But it’s not – we never fully understood what was going on to begin with.
Timinsky and Bonney’s production of “Cabaret” is mostly entertaining, but I feel it doesn’t fully understand itself. The first act is far too cheery, and completely misses the underlying creepiness that makes the show so brilliant. The second act’s violent Nazism comes out of nowhere, and seems disconnected from the fun and games of the “Cabaret” we knew and loved in the first act.
For those who’ve never seen “Cabaret,” see it this weekend. It’s an absolutely brilliant show, with perhaps the best book of any musical I’ve ever seen. But if you’ve already seen it, this production may be a bit of a disappointment.
Cabaret is playing Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 at Theater Intime.