Kick up your heels for Cabaret
?Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome,? said the half-naked man, pallid but smiling as he started the opening song of Cabaret. That wicked-looking joker is your host, your self-proclaimed master of ceremonies; but the program refers to him simply as the Emcee, played by Matt Heap, a senior music major. The show opens onto the Kit Kat Klub, a more-than-just-burlesque nightclub in early-1930s Berlin.
The audience, if they read the short description in their program, probably felt they ?knew the drill? when they realized the time and setting. Yet having never seen it before, one might have felt that the scandalous and sexual escapades on stage would evolve into a dark saga of the rise of the Nazis. By late in the first act, when the first blatant address of the subject occurs, one might already have forgotten the time and place.
And one could not have been blamed, for just after the Emcee began his song, he introduced four scantily costumed ladies, each dubbed with a different double entendre that described her. These costumes, as well as some of the others in the show, were designed and partially constructed by the actors themselves. They ladies were following by three men who were given equally blush-worthy descriptions. The Emcee was greatly expressive, a must for a part that contains quite a few subtleties. In that sense, the part reflected the entire play. The script contains many jokes, most of which are told by the Emcee; Heap?s delivery of these tricky turns of phrase was marvelous. The performers at the Kit Kat Klub attracted the eye from each angle in these first few scenes, spinning around the tables and stretching their limbs in ways impossible for the average person.
The set around which they twisted their barely clad bodies was a modestly sized stage area, which served as the performance area for the ?girls and boys? of the Kit Kat Klub. The set of Cabaret was meant to allow the audience to feel that they were the real audience at the cabaret itself, though a few tables were set up onstage to allow for characters to sit and be a part of this ?audience? as well. The small orchestra also sat on stage, so that they played the role of the club?s musicians while actually providing the music for the performance.
The set was on two levels, with the upper half being reserved for the rented rooms of Fr?ulein Schneider (first-year music major Helen Gruner). Throughout the play observant viewers could see characters make ascents and descents on the staircase that wound its way from these rooms down onto the main stage. Seeing this area helped to give an idea of what would happen in the coming scene, or to portray how a character felt just by the way he moved on the staircase. A particularly interesting aspect of the main stage was a chain-link fence just behind the poles that allowed one to see the club performers exit or enter. For the small-scale production that Scotch ?n? Soda put on, this set served its purpose well. It had only a few minor problems: a doorway which moved distractingly when one closed or opened, and the long costume-catching shreds of the entrance curtain for the Kit Kat Klub. Beyond this it was quite well constructed.
After being swept through the motions of the Kit Kat boys and girls, the audience learned of the troubled (and near penniless) writer, Clifford Bradshaw (Darren Canady, a senior English major). Canady played the na?vet? and spirit of the character with a lot of energy; he was utterly believable as he gaped openly at the members of the dance line at the club.
Bradshaw was awfully lucky, for he happened to sit adjacent to a man on the train who not only became his first customer (Bradshaw taught English lessons to supplement his novel writing) but also gave him the name of a woman from whom he could rent a room. After taking the advice of this Ernst Ludwig (Simon Hucko, a first-year in the SHS program), Bradshaw ascended the staircase and met Fr?ulein Schneider. Schneider bargained fiercely with Bradshaw about the price of his rent before finally giving in to his demands. Gruner?s role was one of the best-played in the performance. One of the main problems with the acting was its tendency to lack force. This was particularly noticeable with the Emcee, who, though competent, fell a bit short of the dynamic nature that one would expect from the host of the cabaret. Gruner had none of this problem. Of all the actors she was the most easily heard and sang with tons of power behind her voice. After justifying why she gave into Bradshaw?s demands by telling a bit about her life to this point, Schneider finally left the writer alone to his work ?- which he never does complete. Rather, the attraction of the Kit Kat Klub (another thing Ludwig mentions on the train) dragged him away to bask in the decadence.
Next the Emcee announced the entrance of the English star of the nightclub, Sally Bowles (Alex Aspiazu, a sophomore philosophy student). Bowles moved straight into the humorous number ?Don?t Tell Mama.? What might have been sinister about the bag checking in the train may have been long forgotten by the time Bradshaw finished gawking and the laughter died down. The scenes in the Kit Kat Klub obviously had the most going on and there is no way to go without mentioning how the girls and boys of the Kit Kat Klub pull together the scenes in which they were featured.
The tale became complicated when Bowles joined Bradshaw at his room to escape the club owner, Max, who was never seen. Here was where the Emcee?s vital role in providing commentary that explains a lot of the situations came in handy. In reply to Sally and Cliff?s affair, the Emcee introduced his two lovers, one female and one a man who was unconvincingly dressed as a woman, but presumably with humorous intent. Though the Emcee conveyed throughout the play such things as the current opinion of money, he also was sometimes a non-participant who acted like the scenery in a number (such as during ?It Couldn?t Please Me More?).
Only after the first act was completed did the audience hear much of anything about the Nazis. Cabaret?s second act really has the meat of the story, at least the most serious part of it. Though the first act has set the stage for what happens next, the world really pulls together (and of course, breaks completely apart) in the second act. Rudolf Schultz (Joe McDermott, a sophomore in chemical engineering), a renter of one of Fra?lein Schneider?s rooms, had most obviously been attempting to woo her. McDermott did a great job getting across the feeling that Schultz is shy and kind, though he eventually becomes more forward with Schneider. The trouble, the same trouble that audience members conscious of the setting have been waiting for, was that Schultz is described as Jewish. Though Schneider and Schultz agree (under odd circumstances) to marry, their engagement party is spoiled by the revelation that Ludwig is a member of the Nazi party. The scene at the engagement party was confusing; it contained nearly the entire cast and there is too much going on. By following whomever is speaking one might have found it a little easier, but there was a lot to distract the eye.
The sour tone of the second act touched each and every person in the play. Bowles and Bradshaw had a fierce falling out, continuing a play-wide theme of opposition to change. Though the couple had discovered Bowles was pregnant and decided to keep the child, Bowles began to fight the idea of leaving her life of song, dance, and gin behind. She returned to the club to perform after a long absence and performed in one of the most emotional moments in the play. She sang the song ?Cabaret,? but while she did, went from happily imploring the audience to come to the cabaret to sobbing out the final verse. The lighting was particularly effective at this scene: when Bowles began to break down she was suddenly set in front of a bright white light that made her form appear almost black. Her arms flailed out as she seemed to beg for something, all the while continuing her song about life?s being a cabaret. The song was quite well performed, but blighted by sound problems. This was not the only point in the play at which the already poor acoustics of Rangos Ballroom seemed even worse. More than one number was marred by muffled voices, presumably from some flaw in the sound controls.
At last the bright and careless nightclub world of the players crumbled around them. Schneider called off her engagement when she feared the Nazis would come to power, Bowles aborted the child she carried; Bradshaw was brutally beaten when he refused Ludwig?s demands to help him smuggle money into the country. Each person seemed broken by the events, and the actors pulled this pain off skillfully. Again, Gruner lit a blaze with ?What Would You Do?,? a song that tried to explain why she did not dare to marry Schultz, though she loved him.
At last, the darkness had fallen. The once-na?ve Bradshaw was leaving the country, with a ticket for Bowles should she want to use it, and proceeding down the staircase one last time. He probably made it out of Germany unscathed, probably the only character to do so. At the final moment, the Emcee changed from his cabaret costume to a concentration camp jumpsuit, complete with a star and an upside-down triangle on the front. He whispered a few words of the opening number, then mid-sentence there was an abrupt crash and he fell, a motion he executed in perfect unison with the sound.
As if no one was sure (or perhaps no one wanted to be) that it was over, there was an intense pause of silence, devoid of clapping, that lasted fully until the music for the curtain call began.