Thursday, January 22, 2009

Swingtime for Hitler

John Kuntz and cast welcome us to Cabaret.

"Musicals aren't written," Julie Andrews once quipped, "they're rewritten." But surely no musical has ever been rewritten quite so often as Cabaret (now at the New Rep through February 1). Indeed, it's had more stage lives than a cat, and each time has come back with slightly different spots. After its (extensive) adaptation from John Van Druten's I Am a Camera, the piece went through the usual set of revisions prior to its stage premiere in 1966; it was then completely re-conceived, with new tunes added for its star, for its celebrated bow on the big screen in 1972. Then in the 80's, Broadway revivals began interpolating the superior songs Kander and Ebb wrote for the movie back into the "original" stage version (plus some songs originally cut from that), and in the 90's, a major re-thinking imported from London (directed by Sam Mendes) re-styled the leading man's love life, pulled in the last remaining song from the movie, and played off-Broadway for years. And through all this, in the far aesthetic distance, you can still just make out a few glimpses of the original original source material, Christopher Isherwood's loosely structured novella, Goodbye to Berlin.

So what do you get at the New Rep? Well, basically the dramatic arc of the 1966 musical, with added emphasis on the hero's bisexuality, along with an interesting tune that didn't make the cut of the original show, plus one of the best songs from the film ("Maybe This Time," for my money the second-best number Kander and Ebb ever wrote). Got that? Good.

And the New Rep, and outgoing Artistic Director Rick Lombardo - along with much of the creative team from his Wild Party production a year or two ago - give this amalgam their best effort, and make it a bright, bouncy, and often diverting evening. They don't, it's true, make a new case for Cabaret - but how could they? Hasn't every single possible variation been rung on the material? Indeed, this musical is almost suspiciously malleable -"Christopher" was gay in the original book, but then "Cliff" was straight on Broadway, then bi in the movie, then gay off-Broadway, and now, apparently, bi again. Oh, and he and Sally Bowles were British in the original, then he was American and she was British in the musical, then he was British and she was American in the movie, and now he's American and she's British again. Perhaps most amusingly, the Emcee in the original musical was slowly decked with Nazi regalia, but then off-Broadway, he ended up - surprise! - a concentration camp prisoner. And at the New Rep, he's not only a concentration camp prisoner, but also shares Cliff's shiner from his encounter with the Nazis. (You see he is all of us, in the same way that life is a cabaret!) And this doesn't even begin to address the central problem of the show - the tone of its source is famously blank (beginning, as you might guess, with that telling, nonjudgemental phrase "I am a camera"), yet the show is after more melodramatic thrills: it essentially wants us to react to its subtext with a shuddering "Oh. My. God. Run! It's the Nazis!"

And at the New Rep, director Rick Lombardo wants us to do that over and over (only to diminishing returns). The original musical - and the superior movie - solved this problem through a strategy of gradual encroachment; the Nazi party slowly moved from the periphery of the Kit Kat Club to its center. At the New Rep, however, Hitler's beaming visage is projected onto the floor seemingly on the first notes of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," and while this gambit is visually striking, it essentially undoes the structure of the play: Hitler isn't coming, he's already here. Lombardo also seems to imagine that Isherwood and Kander and Ebb are all celebrating the decadent atmosphere of Weimar, when instead, of course, they're implicating it in Hitler's rise instead. But any such criticism would be hard to square with the happy, hearty performances of Lombardo's leads, who are all wholesome sexual rebels, and the gleaming set and costume design (the set in particular looks like your average Marriott Hotel lobby - perhaps intentionally, I wondered?). Even John Kuntz, though made up to resemble Death himself as the Emcee, can't really conjure any sense of menace or alienated foreboding, and when he tries to be shocking - at one point he mimes cunnilingus with some willing kitty cat - he still comes off as cute and eager to please.

Sally Bowles (Aimee Doherty) gets her groove on in Cabaret.

Still, Lombardo knows how to give 'em the old razzle-dazzle, and much of Cabaret is lively fun. As Sally Bowles, local heroine Aimee Doherty works hard to seem pathetically narcissistic and damaged, and doesn't convince us for a minute, but her numbers are nevertheless all high-energy show-stoppers (even if they're set a bit low for her voice). Meanwhile Cheryl McMahon and Paul Farwell bring genuine depth to the show's sub-plot (here it almost feels like the main plot) about an elderly couple torn apart by anti-Semitism, and Paul Giragos plays Ernst, a Nazi courier, with an earnest energy that almost makes us forget he looks anything but Aryan. There's also a nice, believably sleazy turn from Shannon Lee Jones as the local working girl, while David Krinitt does what he can as the sexually indeterminate Cliff. The dancers look about as decadent as cheerleaders, but throw themselves into Kelli Edwards's clever routines, all of which come off as brassy, enjoyable blow-outs - even when they end in goose-steps. Meanwhile up in the overhead "pit," Todd C. Gordon leads the capable band (some of them in drag) with his usual élan. So what good is sitting alone in your room, when you can enjoy this broad and brassy, if not particularly disturbing, Cabaret?

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