- OnStage Texas Critic
- Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
“In here, life is beautiful.” The performance of Cabaret currently on tour at the Winspear Opera House is also beautiful. This is simply the finest production of Cabaret I have ever seen. It’s a classic show that has received a raw and emotional revival for this tour.
The setting is Berlin, Germany in 1929-1930. Berlin at the time was an exciting city filled with free-wheeling parties and sexual liberation. However, the Nazis were coming into power and freedom was replaced with oppression and fear. Based around the nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, the main story involves an English cabaret performer named Sally Bowles and the American writer Clifford Bradshaw with whom she meets and develops a relationship. Some of the other situations involve a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider, her suitor Herr Schultz, and the other residents in the boarding house. The enigmatic Emcee oversees all the action and looms over the proceedings.
Randy Harrison, who is mostly known for playing Justin on the acclaimed Television series “Queer As Folk”, presides over the drama as the Emcee. He’s a mischievous figure that weaves in and out of scenes playing different parts. Most of his songs serve as a metaphor for the current political climate in Germany. Mr. Harrison is extremely impressive in this leading role. He has a rich, booming voice that caught me by surprise. At the start of Act II, he comes out and does a bit of improvisation with the audience which made everyone laugh. He dances, sings, and nails every emotional moment.
Sally Bowles is a complicated character. As headliner of the Kit Kat Klub, Sally parties and drinks and bounces from man to man. Her bold and effervescent way with people masks her pain. She hides from the real world and tries to remain oblivious to the changes happening in Germany and around her. Andrea Goss tries her best with Sally. She has a good voice, but she doesn’t really get a chance to let loose. “Maybe This Time” is one of the best songs in the show and she just doesn’t quite nail it. I’ve heard other actresses sing it better. I’ve heard the title song, “Cabaret”, sung strictly as a bouncy up-tempo song and also in a slow sad version. Ms. Goss does something somewhere in between, and with a touch of anger. It was her best moment in the show, but the rest of her performance felt a little off.
Clifford Bradshaw is the American writer who comes to Berlin to be inspired to write a new novel. He gets seduced by the glitz and the parties of Berlin, but he is also very aware of the impending Nazi takeover. Even though he’s been with men in the past, he’s drawn to Sally and tries his best to be in a relationship with her. Cliff is actually a bland character on paper. But Lee Aaron Rosen injects charm and passion to Cliff that I’ve never seen anyone do before. He made a weak character come to life and made us care about him.
The boarding house in Berlin where Cliff stays is run by Fraulein Schneider, and older spinster woman who never married. She develops a flirtation, and then real feelings for one of the tenants staying there, Herr Schultz. Herr Schultz is the Jewish owner of a fruit shop in Berlin. Though he was born in Germany, his Jewish faith puts him in danger from the Nazis. The subplot between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz has always been my least favorite part of Cabaret. Even though their relationship is central to the theme of the show, I’ve always found it to be the least interesting aspect. I would much rather spend time with the dancers and performers in the Kit Kat Klub. However, major kudos to Shannon Cochran as Fraulein Schneider. She was by far the best actor in the show. Her voice and talent really sold every moment and showed great depth. Mark Nelson was also wonderful as Herr Schultz, the most innocent character in the show. He played well opposite Ms. Cochran and their bond was the most believable.
One of the best parts of watching Cabaret on stage is the Kit Kat Klub Band. These people play every instrument in the live band onstage, then they move downstage to sing, dance, and act in many scenes as the scantily clad boys and girls of the Kit Kat Klub. They are the real triple-threats and an extremely talented group.
The costumes by William Ivey Long are sublime perfection. Mr. Long has been nominated for 15 Tony awards and won 6 times. There is no one in the business who does it better. The Kit Kat Klub girls are dressed in revealing lingerie and the boys in open vests and trousers. Sally Bowles wears a divine fur coat most of the show. The Emcee also wears mostly revealing outfits such as crisscrossed suspenders, a black trench coat, and even a sparkly dress or two. He understands every character and dresses them just perfectly.
The set design by Robert Brill is fairly simplistic in its design but very functional. Center stage has three doors used for various scenes such as the boarding house and the Kit Kat Klub. Two spiral staircases lead up to the second level where the orchestra is suspended over the action downstage. A large picture frame highlights any action on the second level. The large stage and the spacious Winspear Opera House strangely made the show feel less intimate. Cabaret truly works better in an actual cabaret style setting. A smaller audience and more confined space would make you feel like you were actually in the Kit Kat Klub.
The direction and choreography is stellar courtesy of the original Broadway veteran directors Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes. For a show that runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes, it moves very briskly and doesn’t drag. The directors made some great choices and one mildly confusing one. The song “Two Ladies” is now done where one of the ladies is a boy in drag. It was funny and added a fresh take on the song. One of the other well-known songs, “Mein Herr”, is pretty famous for the choreography using chairs by the legendary Bob Fosse. This version doesn’t use the chairs at all, and I kind of missed that fun visual to go along with the song.
The choreography and assistant direction for this national tour was recreated from the original by Cynthia Onrubia. For you fans of TV’s “Dancing With The Stars”, she is indeed the regular judge on the hit ABC series. She also was one of Madonna’s dancers for her world tour titled “The Girlie Show”. She in fact was the nude dancer with chopped hair that made her look almost bald who slithered and glided sensually on a high rise stripper pole at the beginning of the show. So to be erotic and uninhibited on stage fit perfectly with her background to create the debauched and lascivious world within the Kit Kat Klub.
The final image of the show (which I won’t spoil) is striking and haunting. I wasn’t expecting it to punch me in the gut that emotionally, but it did. This is a masterful version of Cabaret co-produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company. In fact, this is the second revival of this particular staging. You won't want to miss it.