by SOPHIE KERMAN and ANNA ROSENSWEIG
While navigating the winding road to the Centennial Showboat for the Frank Theatre production of Cabaret, we remarked that one of the things that makes theater-going special is the process of getting there. Unlike reading a book in your living room or going to a convenient showing at your local movie theater, going to a play requires advance planning. It’s not an easy escape: the show times are limited and the locations sometimes obscure. But the payoff, at least in this case, is worth leaving the comfort of your home or changing your weekend routine.
The Frank Theatre has a history of putting on interesting and provocative productions. They write in their mission statement that they are “committed to producing work that reflects the world in which we live.” The reflection that they offer with Cabaret is not an obvious one, but is the all the better for drawing parallels that are not trite or heavy-handed. The plot, which tells the story of a seedy Berlin night-club during the decline of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi party, doesn’t lend itself to easy comparisons with current events, but its themes of willful ignorance, escapism, and loss of political innocence ring painfully true to today’s audiences.
The success of the production has much to do with the talented ensemble cast. Cabaret is not a play that gets carried by any one character. Between the chilling versatility of the Emcee (Bradley Greenwald), the bittersweet romance of Fraulein Schneider (Melissa Hart) and Herr Schultz (Patrick Bailey), and the subtle loss of naivety of Sally Bowles (Sara Richardson) and Cliff Bradshaw (Max Wojtanowicz), there were no weak links. One of the unique challenges of this play is that the singing is often supposed to be second rate, and yet this must come across as a deficiency of the character rather than the actor. In this respect the musical direction by Michael Croswell was right on pitch: the characters’ amateur vocal stylings were rendered all the more powerful by the actors’ virtuosity.
In fact, the actors were so successful at putting on a good show during the first act that we worried at intermission that the characters’ underlying desperation was getting lost. Musical numbers that might have had both grit and entertainment value seemed strangely clean and unironic. We told ourselves that the success of the play would hinge on transforming the happy-go-lucky escapism of the first act into a starker world where such naïve pleasure is shown to be impossible.
Thankfully the second act revealed precisely what we had hoped to see. From the very first dance number featuring showgirls doing high-kicks in a swastika formation, it became clear that the thrills and laughs of the first act depended on both the characters’ and the audience’s denial of the grim economic, political, and sexual ramifications of the show they had been enjoying. Tensions emerged not only due to rising anti-Semitism but also surrounding the latent misogyny that sustains cabaret performance and, in many ways, the relationship between Sally and Cliff. This spiral of social disillusionment culminated in a breath-taking last number, which showed the character’s earlier aspirations to be based on what they wished to be true rather than on the harsh realities of the world around them. This number repeated and transfigured words, gestures and choreography from previous scenes, recasting the performers as real bodies in pain rather than objects of pleasure and rehearsed titillation.
While all the individual performances were strong and compelling, it was Wendy Knox’s cogent and incisive interpretation that propelled the show beyond simple-minded entertainment or didactic political commentary. Under her direction, both the individual characters and the community they form emerge as human. Subject to the hopes, despairs and will to survive that shape even those decisions that we may find distasteful or unconscionable, the characters nonetheless elicit our sympathy and provoke reflection on what it means to exist within a corrupt society. Knox’s brilliant re-envisioning of the play’s ending coalesces into a single moment that strikes to the core.
If the play begins with the Emcee luring us in with promises that we can leave our troubles at the door, it ends by showing how impossible such escapism really is. Troubles never stay at the door; they creep in from every corner. In the Frank Theatre’s interpretation, the cabaret stages political tensions, economic hardships, and very real human dilemmas. While we thought we were fleeing our real lives for an afternoon at the theater, Cabaret reveals that to experience good theater is not to escape real life, but rather to see it in a new light.
Note: Thanks to the Frank Theatre’s thoughtful response to an audience focus group, they now follow their Sunday matinee productions with a panel discussion and audience talk-back session that encourage engagement with their provocative stagings and interpretations. We highly recommend staying and absorbing whatever the Frank Theatre has to offer.