A few ways of describing Cabaret:
The word "blindsided."
A bubble bursting.
The sound of the police knocking on the door of a party.
Perhaps that last one is too literal, but I think you get the point. The play follows an American writer (Cliff, although his name may as well be Chad or Brett) as he moves to Berlin in 1939 to write his big novel. He goes to a cabaret (an edgy night performance, picture burlesque, and drag shows) and falls in love with the British performer Sally, and the two spend a few months living together as Nazism grows from a fringe extremist group to the ruling political ideology in Germany.
Their story intertwines with that of Ernst, a Nazi who befriends Cliff and gives him employment running mysterious errands to Paris, and Frau Schneider, who owns the boarding house where Cliff and Sally live and gets engaged to Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit grocer. You can probably guess how that all ends up.
At first, it seems like a love story. The first act is full of upbeat cabaret performances and budding romance. The choreography of numbers like "Two Ladies," "Don't Tell Mama," and "Money" feature innuendo, filthy jokes, and comically exaggerated mimed sex acts which made me feel bad for any parents of young children watching the show. Outrageous fun. Cliff's fast-moving romance with Sally is contrasted with the quiet, wholesome relationship between Schneider and Schultz, and until the end of Act I you almost believe there's hope for any of the characters' relationships.
Though it feels odd to say so, Cabaret was fun to watch. The stage transformed itself with every scene switch so that the cabaret and life outside it, where things are hitting the metaphorical fan, truly seem like two different worlds. The lighting shifted from more traditional orange-yellow to purplish, the costumes went from beige-brown suits and shawls to something akin to burlesque: high heels, red stockings, gaudy makeup and lots of skin. Even the German accents seemed happier (Willkommen!) and less serious during the cabaret numbers. I'm sure there were other, subtler changes I didn't pick up on, but the message is as clear as the emcee tells us in the opening number: "In here, life is beautiful!"
The distinction between "in here" and "out there" is what ultimately leads to Cliff and Sally's separation in the end. Cliff sees what's going on outside of his escapist sabbatical (he doesn't even start writing the book until he's traveling home to Pennsylvania) and finds something wrong with it. Sally, like the emcee, says exactly how she sees things: "life's a cabaret." She loathes talking about politics and strives to avoid it at all costs.
This bubble is popped at the end of Act I, when all of the subplots converge at Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz's engagement party. This is my favorite scene in the play; it's akin to the moment a volleyball player drills a perfectly-set spike. Tension is built subtly throughout the act while everything is still fun and happy, then explodes when another tenant, Frau Kost, tells Ernst that Schultz is Jewish. There was an awkward pause at the end of this scene, where the audience really wasn't sure if clapping was the right response. Do you clap for a group of Nazis singing nationalist folk songs to keep the mood "light" at a party? This is the kind of way Cabaret makes you feel.
It's not hard to imagine why they chose this play given the political climate in the U.S., is it? Purnell has always played relevant mainstage shows (Ragtime, Detroit '67), but Cabaret feels more like a call to action than previous productions. Without being heavy-handed, the musical makes a strong case against complacency. If conflict is a spectrum, with words at one end and war at the other, Cabaret falls closer to the former than the fall's mainstage Detroit '67, which takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots against racism and police brutality.
In this way, Cabaret unscrambles the questions that a wealthier audience (like us!) is likely to grapple with in conflict: is it okay to be close with someone with a dangerous political ideology? Should we really avoid talking about politics, religion, and sex with those we are close to? The play seems to answer no to these kinds of questions. Cliff ends up punching Ernst in the face (satisfying until he gets his ass kicked by three Nazi brownshirts) and leaving for the states without Sally.
Of course, the "politics" over which Cliff decides to leave Germany end up being much more to his German friends. Frau Schneider points out in Act II that transients like Cliff and Sally always have the option of just leaving, while Herr Schultz, and the cabaret performers, aren't so lucky: they have nowhere to run. Cabaret gives a nod not only to Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany but also nonwhite and non-straight persecution, as the show is infiltrated by Nazis towards the end. As for Schneider and Schultz, who are older and think Nazism will pass, they seem to fall under the description of dramaturg Agatha Woodbury's address in the playbook: "they witnessed all of the warning signs and just didn't act […] because they were too distracted or because it benefited them."
Upon leaving the play, I found myself wondering what our equivalent is; what the warning signs we're missing are. Is it spending weekends at clubs in the Strip District, dancing next to people who might be white supremacists? Is it focusing on careers or love interests or passions while missing the articles popping up on our newsfeeds? What is our bubble and when will it burst?
Talk about politics. Argue about politics. Especially with the people closest to you. That's what I learned from Cabaret.