A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, Mary Poppins advised the annoying little twerps in her charge. Substitute “music” for sugar, and “politics” for medicine, and you’ve got Cabaret.
This time, the little twerps are Nazis – as opposed to whiny schoolchildren – and they are - of course - more than annoying.
Bay Street Theatre’s production of Cabaret is uniquely staged and features a number of impressive performances. The whole thing is dark and shadowy, the song–and–dance segments dressed in suitable tones of decadent black, red and exposed flesh, and the atmosphere is one of thrilling sleaze. I’ve seen many interpretations of Cabaret, and all in all this was probably the most satisfying.
Yet it’s always seemed as if composers John Kander and Fred Ebb, and book writer Joe Masteroff, were attempting to squeeze two plays into one. Masteroff’s script focuses on the Nazi rise to power in 1930s Berlin, the ascending smell of doom in the air, and the way this affects a small group of people.
One of these is Sally Bowles, a flighty British club singer who’s interested in nothing but herself. In the play, she has an affair with American novelist Cliff Bradshaw. Over time, Bradshaw begins to understand how dangerous the Nazi party is, and makes plans to get out while the getting’s good. Sally, however, just wants to keep performing at the tawdry Kit Kat Klub.
Meanwhile, love blooms for Fraulein Schneider, Cliff’s landlady, and the widowed Herr Schultz, a grocer. Herr Schultz happens to be Jewish. So we know pretty early that things aren’t going to go particularly well.
These and other dramatic scenes are sandwiched between the Kit Kat musical numbers. Director Jeff DeVincent places many of the singers and dancers in and around the Club One audience, and this is a brilliant touch: Club One is, of course, a real cabaret stage, where drag queens ply their particular trade several nights a week.
But this is where, for me, hairs split on Cabaret: The songs are so good, the choreography raunchy and the lyrics suggestive, it’s something of a letdown when we go back to the drama, which all takes place on the stage proper.
That’s not to denigrate the actors, who do great things with what they’re given. Gail Byrd and Walter Magnuson are quite charming as Schneider and Schultz; their awkward love scene (with a little courtship dance) is tender and touching. Christopher Stanley as Cliff, Travis Harold Coles as the Nazi–in–waiting Ernst Ludwig, and Bridget Tunstall as the local whore Fritzie Kost are believable and often spellbinding.
But one never, in any Cabaret , gets enough of a feeling that all is about to be lost. It’s a sad story, but I’ve yet to see a production that ties it together with the club debauchery. The point seems to be that, as the song says, life is a cabaret, that’s there’s a thin line between the surreal and the all-too real.
The Kit Kat scenes hint – sometimes broadly – that the wrath of God (or, certainly the wrath of something) is about to come down. Swastikas appear at unexpected moments, and one of the Emcee’s weirdest songs, “If You Could See Her,” turns nasty and vicious.
The Emcee (Christopher Blair) is the thread that ties all the musical numbers together (he also lurks around the sidelines during some of the dramatic scenes). A sort of lipsticked girlyman, he surrounds himself with the scantily–clad Kit Kat girls for the show’s most enjoyable numbers, full of innuendo, double–entendre and out–and–out salacious lyrics and thrusty movement.
No one in Savannah, of course, does this kind of stuff better than Blair, whose morphing into cross–sexual musical dynamos made Bay Street’s The Rocky Horror Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch so thrilling.
As Sally, Courtney Flood (Urinetown The Musical) is riveting during the musical scenes. She’s a terrific singer (her rendition of the cathartic title song is powerful and not a little scary), she’s leggy and she’s a great dancer (she designed the choreography for this production). I wasn’t crazy about the “grand dame” speaking voice she chose for her Sally, but Flood is impossible to look away from. She’s an integral part of this particular Cabaret machine.
Of all the musical theater warhorses out here, Cabaret is the one I’d most like to see done as a concert piece, with the dancing and frills intact but with the pokey plot–advancing drama set aside.
Cabaret continues through July 24.