By Morgan Politzer
Sex isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think about musical theater. It’s not even the second or the third. But it was the first thing that came to mind watching Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s version of Cabaret.
Before the show began, cast members came out from behind the curtain one by one; women in lingerie and ripped black stockings filled the stage, stretching and moving almost in slow motion. Men wearing open vests and undone bow ties began seductively playing the saxophone. Their squats, splits and stretches were designed to give a preview into the seedy club; it was almost unnerving to look up at the stage to find girls hanging upside down from the set.
Mendes and Marshall’s version debuted on Broadway in 1998, giving the classic musical a darker and more visceral feel, drastically different from the glamorous, “showbiz” version that first opened in 1966 on Broadway. After closing in 2004, it began its second revival in 2013, according to Artistic Director Todd Haimes’ note in the Kennedy Center playbill.
Cabaret is set in Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime. American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley) arrives in Germany in the hopes of finding inspiration for his novel. On the train, he meets Ernst Ludwig (Patrick Vaill), who introduces him to the hidden wealth and sex that is the Kit Kat Club, run by the Emcee (Jon Peterson). There, Bradshaw meets the elusive and sensual Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin), the lead performer at the club. As the show progresses, Bradshaw is drawn into Sally’s world, putting his novel aside.
Scenes between the Emcee and the Kit Kat Girls (Jenna Zito Clark, Chelsey Clark, Laura Sheehy, Kendal Hartise, Alison Ewing, Sarah Bishop) and Boys (Joey Khoury, Andrew Hubacher, Ryan DeNardo, Tommy McDowell) puncture the plot. The Emcee spends most of the show in nothing but suspenders and tight pants with his face full of drag makeup. All of the performers in the Kit Kat club not only allow but encourage his sexual advances.
The music was a little hard to swallow, especially during numbers like “Two Ladies,” in which the Emcee and two “ladies” (one is a man in drag) dance across the stage, and “Money,” as he stuffs dollar bills into his ladies’ lingerie. Numbers that weren’t full of sex made me squirm for other reasons. Full of darkness or twisted glee, the hidden struggles of the character’s burlesque lives were revealed.
But it wasn’t just the music that was laced with underlying hysterics. The first act almost skimmed over the darkness, as if the bad could go away simply by ignoring it. The show is a metaphor for the Nazis’ rise to power, which became a central theme in the second half. As the characters assumed their daily struggles would smooth themselves out, so too did they pretend the Nazi regime would fizzle out.
For all its raunchiness, it was still good theater. The Kit Kat Girls’ constant hip rolls and deep squats got to be a bit much, but the talent was there. Cabaret highlighted debates our society still deals with today, including the morality of homosexuality and gender fluidity, abortion and anti-Semitism. Each character reached a moment in the show where they had to make a crucial decision. Some of them discovered the freedom of making their own choices and doing what they believed to be right, while others were stuck in the ways of society, unable to free themselves from its constraints, brainwashed into believing, the same way the Germans believed the Nazis.
The technical aspects of the show were minimalistic and simple, but it fit the needs of the production. An elevated set with two spiral staircases proved to be crucial for the orchestra, since the actors themselves played most of the instruments. The members of the orchestra who were not a part of the acting cast still sat in costume and played in character, as if they were simply musicians for the Kit Kat Club.
Cabaret’s talented cast and strong, however unconventional, directing gave it power over issues that have often been considered taboo. The all-encompassing subject matter leads to a shocking ending, leaving both more and less than I wanted left to the imagination.
Cabaret will run at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through August 6, 2017.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Joan Marcus.
Morgan Politzer is a freshman journalism major and can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.