April 01, 2011

KC Stage

Welcome to Berlin
by Greg Boyle

Kansas City Rep has hit its peak this season with an outstanding staging of the Tony award winning 1966 musical, Cabaret. The Rep takes Kander and Ebb’s fabulous music, and Joe Masteroff’s gripping story, and keeps the audience enthralled from opening curtain, to curtain call. The Rep had a couple of missteps this season, namely, Saved and Circle Mirror Transformation, but this production puts them firmly back on track.

The play takes us back in time both historically and theatrically. Historically, the period is the early 1930’s rise of Nazi power in Germany. We get first hand glimpses of the economic and social conditions that fed the Nazi rise. In addition, we also see the unfortunate and misguided notions of the average German that allowed Hitler and his minions to consolidate their grip with tragic results.

Brian Sills (Master of Ceremonies) and the Kit Kat Klub Girls

Those were parlous times. Unemployment was sky high due to the worldwide economic depression following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. During the 1920s, Germany had been brutalized by the Treaty of Versailles, which exacted war reparations that wreaked havoc on their economy even before the beginning of the Great Depression. At one point it took a wheelbarrow to carry enough cash to buy a loaf of bread. Germans felt abused and toughened by their experience, and ready to lay the blame on any convenient doorstep.

Without attempting to exculpate the Nazis or the Germans, it must be recognized that in times of rapid change and economic instability, countries typically turn their sights inward, and all shades of extremism can arise. Xenophobic attempts to homogenize the population commonly take place. It happened so many times in the 20th century that it is hard to keep track. Besides Germany, Turkey, Rwanda, Cambodia and the Balkan countries top the list.

Cabaret’s story line is taken from Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, which was made into the play I Am A Camera by John Van Druten. It concerns a penurious young American writer, Clifford Bradshaw, visiting Berlin to find grist for a novel. He finds more than he bargained for in the Weimar Republic. He immediately falls in with an amoral nightclub singer, Sally Bowles, and she envelops him in her sexual, sensual, chaotic world. Outside, the Nazis are gaining power and practicing their brutal ways, but inside the nightclub “everything is beautiful.” That’s the way Sally likes it, and refuses to see anything different. Clifford, as an outsider, is much more objective, and learns to see the writing on the wall.

Theatrically, the play is one of the last of the great musicals of the Golden Age of Broadway. During that era, hit shows had numerous hummable tunes with great lyrics that made their way into the popular culture. By the 1970s that started to be replaced by Stephen Sondheim concept musicals having no real story line, and scored with atonal music. That later gave way to the operatic form of Andrew Lloyd Webber where you can’t even understand the words to the songs, let alone remember the tunes. But I digress.

KC Rep’s production of Cabaret has everything a theatre lover wants and hopes for in a musical — hummable tunes and memorable lyrics sung by fine voices, and every word sung is understood. The production is marked by a number of outstanding performances. Most notably, Brian Sills plays the Master of Ceremonies with demonic glee and panache. His every move demands your attention. Holly Resnick as Fraulein Schneider and Gary Neal Johnson as Herr Schultz give us a tender over-the-hill romance that has far more electricity than the ingénue-leading man pairing. Resnick’s rendition of “So What’ in the first act is at once moving and comic. Sally Bowles, played by Kara Lindsay, and Clifford, portrayed by Claybourne Elder do a fine job with their duets, and Lindsay stops the show with her “Don’t Tell Mama.”

The staging of the show is unique, in that about 200 seats have been put on stage and become active participants in the nightclub routines. Those folks looked like they were really having fun! The cabaret production numbers led by the Master of Ceremonies were especially marvelous. “Wilkommen,”  “The Money Song,” “If You Could See Her” all excellent. The sassy and risqué choreography by Richard J. Hinds evokes the period and style to a “T” and were nicely executed by the ensemble. The costumes by Sarah Beers with flesh-toned leotards on the Kit Kat Girls marvelously simulate the daring outfits of the era.

This is a show you should not miss, that is, if you can get tickets. I didn’t see any empty seats on a Saturday night. Call soon. Cabaret is showing at the Kansas City Repertory’s Spencer Theatre on UMKC Campus through April 10. Box office is 816-235-2700, or go online at www.kcrep.org.

Greg Boyle can be reached at gbboyle@kc.rr.com