By Maya Patterson
“Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!” A welcome to Cabaret in three different languages sets the audience at ease in the Arizona Repertory Theatre’s Tornabene Theatre.
However, the rest of the opening number may cause uneasiness in some audience members who don’t know quite what to expect. The cabaret girls come out scantily clothed, the Emcee (played by Josh Dunn) has a drag- queen quality, and the dance movements are provocative. This, after all, was Berlin in the early 1930s, when the cold shadow of the Nazi party was about to darken over the waning creative, progressive era in German theater, movies and (in uneasy Berlin), night clubs.
Joe Masteroff, who wrote the book for the musical, drew from Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. These stories were set in Berlin in the 1930s and ‘40s, starting as Adolf Hitler and his Nazis marched into power. With a score by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, Cabaret adds theatrics and striking music to what is otherwise hard-to-swallow subject matter.
Cabaret takes place in 1932 Berlin, where an American writer from Pennsylvania, Cliff Bradshaw (Brian Klimowski), comes to find inspiration for his next novel. Bradshaw takes a room at Fräulein Schneider’s (Shira Elena Maas) boardinghouse for fifty marks, a great deal for a window with a view on an era. At the suggestion of his newest English pupil, Ernst Ludwig (Keenan Larson), Bradshaw visits the Kit Kat Klub, a desperately depraved cabaret. There Bradshaw meets Sally Bowles (Ali Wood Moser), the sexy, if ragged, English singer.
True to the classic cabaret idea of the time, this show includes individual musical numbers that punctuate the actual plot-line. These numbers are put on by the Emcee and the Kit Kat girls and boys. The vocalists, backed by a lively orchestra, sing loudly and clearly, never missing a beat. The choral numbers are the most powerful, including the chilling choral rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the final number before intermission. This song, sung at the engagement party of Herr Schultz (Charlie Hall), a Jewish fruit marketer, and Fräuline Schneider, builds into a foreshadowing message of triumph from the Nazi party, two years before Hitler assumed total power in Germany.
Though Cabaret welcomes the audience with an ironic promise that “we have no troubles here,” as the show goes on, the troubles of living the lifestyle of free abandon arrive center-stage, and the chill of the horror that is yet to come in Germany begins to creep in on the characters.
The original 1966 Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Musical, along with eight other Tony Awards. With Broadway revivals in 1987, 1998, and 2014, along with repertory performances around the country, Cabaret remains one of the most notable shows in the American stage-musical repertoire. Cabaret also adapted in a 1972 movie starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and the original Broadway Emcee, Joel Grey – and directed by the legendary jazz dancer Bob Fosse.
The BFA Musical Theatre students at the U of A perform beautifully in Cabaret. Ali Wood Moser plays an extremely dynamic Sally Bowles, who brings heart-breaking emotion to her solo numbers about her changing life, including “Maybe This Time” and of course the signature, defiant “Cabaret.” Her voice carries through the entire blackbox theater, leaving an eerie, silent pause just before the audience breaks into applause.
Josh Dunn, who plays the Emcee, is phenomenal and transformative within his role. Not only does Dunn ride the line between male and female, his vocal performance shows versatility, from the manly, savagely sneering comedic “If You Could See Her” to the more serious and feminine “I Don’t Care Much.” He has cameos in the “real-life” scenes of the show, as well as center-stage performances during the Kit Kat Klub performances, to which he brings balance and a comedic touch.
The director, Danny Gurwin, does a great job in developing these student actors and actresses into Broadway-style performers. The accents that each actor display brought the audience from Tucson to Berlin — thanks to the dialect coach David Morden.
The orchestra, conducted by Mike R. Padilla, “Is beautiful!” as leeringly proclaimed by the Emcee in “Willokommen.” The musicians are showcased in the Entr’acte, where the music is paired with the artful and doleful blinking of the Kit Kat sign. The musicians, a mix of students from the Fred Fox School of Music and talented Tucson players, complement the vocalists throughout.
The costume designs, by Leah Mednick Foley, bring out the show’s basic sexiness. Nearly all of the Kit Kat girls wear nothing more than lingerie of the time, and the Emcee wears short leather shorts – leiderhosen – for almost the entire show. These choices make sense in the context of a seedy night club in 1930s Berlin, yet sometimes the overtly sexual costume choices overshadow the sexiness that the actors showed through their movements.
There are so many levels to the plot, the characters, and even the set incorporated into this production of Cabaret. The scenic design for this production, by M Erdman, succeeds in many ways, the biggest of which is creating a space for the Kit Kat Klub while nearly simultaneously using the same space for a small room in Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house. To complement the scenic design, D. Joshua Hemmo’s lighting separates the spaces by using dimmer lighting along with brighter, more vibrant colors for the Kit Kat Klub, and whiter, simpler lighting for other scenes.
Overall, this new production of Cabaret brought together the lighter moments of life, such as falling in love, with the darkest evocations of a past, such as the haunting facts of Germany’s pre-war turmoil. Through overtly sexual themes, the audience will love taking the harrowing journey back in time.
Cabaret plays from October 18 to November 8, 2015 in the Tornabene Theatre.
Tickets: tickets.arizona.edu, or at (520) 621-1162.
More information: http://theatre.arizona.edu/aboutcabaret/