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Review: 'Cabaret' at the Dallas Theater Center

Musical chairs:  Kent Zimmerman, Kate Wetherhead and Alex Ross in Cabaret

Cabaret has always been a case of Holocaust Lite. But then, it’s a Broadway musical, what were we expecting?

Actually, this was true long before the material was set to music, so let’s not be snotty about Broadway. Christopher Isherwood’s twin novels, The Berlin Stories (the literary source for the show), are Holocaust Lite, too. That’s because they’re set in early ’30s Berlin, pre-Nuremberg Race Laws, pre-Wannsee Conference. The horrors to come are mostly a sub-text in Isherwood’s tales of marginal, bohemian types, living in rental rooms, hanging out in dives. This is Bergen-Belsen in vitro.

Much the same can be said for the polymorphous sexuality onstage at Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub, the tawdry stuff we theatergoers have found so alluring: the transvestites, the threesomes, the ever-present sexual availability. None of it conveys a fraction of how desperate and extreme things actually got on Berlin stages (or in Berlin bedrooms). Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin devotes a chapter to Lustmord, the fad for sex murders. It also details the way World War I’s death toll on the male population created a huge gender imbalance. Both prostitution and venereal disease skyrocketed.

In Cabaret, it’s hardly a question of representing such history accurately. The show is more in the style of a burlesque come-on. When it comes to unconventional sex or conventional genocide, Cabaret is suggestive, not explicit. Mostly, we get torn stockings and swastika armbands.

True, in the Dallas Theater Center‘s crackling production, there are moments of nudity and there’s Wade McCollum (left), the 99-percent-fat-free performer who plays the master of ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, where the show is set. Along with his impressive singing and dancing chops, he brings a narcissistic carnality to all the groping and crotch-thrusting. He provides a lascivious menace that Joel Grey couldn’t hope to emulate on stage or in the 1972 Bob Fosse film.

Still, this is mostly just theater-grade bump-and-grind. Yet Cabaret is perhaps best when it is suggestive. On Kristallnacht, 267 synagogues were torched; 30,000 Jewish men were dragged off to camps — in one night. How to put such an enormity on stage? In Cabaret — set seven years before that evening — what we get is a single brick through a single (pretend) window. It’s all we need. Unlike these Berliners, we know what’s coming. It’s one of the many little death knells that toll louder and louder throughout the show. How much worse, Cabaret asks, will it have to get?

But like (some) of its naughty-naughty Kit Kat dancers, Cabaret has been a cross-dresser. Over the years, it’s changed its appearance, slipped on some different stripper heels. Directed by Joel Ferrell, the current production is a sharp, smart show — the most focused, the most effective musical production the Theater Center has staged. Yet it’s actually a somewhat different creature than what first appeared, sporting thick black eyeliner, back in 1966.

We know Cabaret mostly for the iconic, comic-creepy presence of the master of ceremonies at the Kit Kat, made famous by Grey. Or we know it because of the Fosse film and Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles. She’s the Kit Kat’s hard-living, low-life chanteuse who’d rather “go like Elsie” — her friend who died from “too much pills and liquor” — and to hell with what Mama or the Nazis or even her would-be savior, the American writer Cliff Bradshaw, might think. Sally is going happily — or unhappily, it’s hard to tell — to sing and dance herself into a good-looking corpse.

But neither the emcee nor Sally existed exactly like that in the original show. As the musical’s bookwriter Joe Masteroff has explained in interviews, the emcee was just a device needed to change scenes, to introduce the next song. He had no character, and in the ’66 Playbill, Grey is listed at the bottom of the cast. The show’s creators — Masteroff, director Hal Prince, songwriters Joe Kander and Fred Ebb — had no idea they’d created a monster. Given no delineated form, the emcee assumed greater utility, greater significance. And Grey turned him into a starring role.

As for Sally, she was expanded for the film into more of a conventional movie vehicle for Minelli, albeit one which still proved radical for a musical (as opposed to, say, a cautionary Victorian melodrama): She comes to a bad end. Originally, “Sally Bowles” was only one story in Isherwood’s collection of semi-autobiographical scenes, character sketches and diary entries. He meant to portray a certain strata at a certain time in Berlin, not concentrate on a would-be star.

In short, it was an ensemble piece. Even today, audiences are often surprised by the older lovers, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. They just about steal the show from Sally and the emcee. He’s a Jewish fruit peddler; she’s Cliff and Sally’s landlady. The middle-aged couple is straight, they’re proper, they’re fully clothed — in this context, they couldn’t be duller or more bourgeois. But they walk away with much of this production. Julie Johnson delivers what may be her most subdued and touching performance as Schneider, and David Coffee gives us a heartfelt David Coffee with a Yiddish accent and a pineapple. That’s all he needs.

Director Joel Ferrell understands all this and has pushed the revival to be less like the Hollywood movie and more akin to Isherwood’s slice-of-city-life stories. For one thing, he’s amplified the role of the aging prostitute Fraulein Kost (the excellent Sally Nystuen Vahle, left). She’s now representative of all the opportunistic Germans who decided to rise with the tide of anti-Semitism.

The original show was enough of an ensemble piece that the pair of older lovers make up its third storyline. The two main ones are the rise of the Nazis, of course, and the ‘romance’ between Sally and Cliff, who’s come to Berlin to write a novel — and winds up with Sally sharing his rented room. I put ‘romance’ in quotation marks because Isherwood’s homosexuality was pretty much excised to make the show audience-safe in 1966.

It was the 1987 Broadway revival — and not, as some have assumed, the more explicit, Sam Mendes-directed staging of 1993 — that brought Cliff fully out of the closet (the Fosse film does have him saying he prefers boys, but … he’s Michael York and she’s Liza Minelli, and there’s definitely a sparkle of Hollywood attraction there). For the 1987 revival, the first one on Broadway, everything was the same as the original but for that one change: Cliff is no longer sexually ambivalent or simply hesitant to get into bed with Sally. He’s known to the Kit Kat’s male dancers from his gay pickups back in London.

Certainly, this is more reflective of Isherwood’s own life and writings. But it subtly shifts the emotional balance of the musical. Before, Sally and Cliff held out the hope (to the audience) that they and their love might survive. It certainly gave the pair a strong reason to escape — together — from the Third Reich. This is what we expect in a conventional musical comedy, no matter how unrealistic it is in everyday life: Love is threatened yet love prevails. Especially in showbiz when there’s a pregnancy involved.

Of course, making Cliff gay (or more accurately, returning him to Isherwood’s sexuality) doesn’t preclude the possibility of escape and parentage — although a gay-straight family pairing was much rarer then than now. But in Sally’s calculations, Cliff’s homosexuality must lessen the (already rather limited) appeal of quitting showbiz to run off with him and raise a baby in Pennsylvania. We certainly still want the pair to survive the Holocaust, but we’re not blind, either. This particular couple living in 1930s Harrisburg — without much bawdy nightlife or a convenient coke dealer: Can this marriage be saved?

In addition, if we lessen the odds that Sally might escape with Cliff (ably played by Lee Trull, left), then we lessen the chance that anybody will escape the Nazis at all.

Anybody other than Cliff, that is. Cliff’s a casual American visitor — naturally, he would go. But the fact that he can’t even save Sally is sobering: We didn’t stop this, no one did. We didn’t save the people we could. Which is one reason I’ve long thought he should be an American (instead of British), a choice that, at first, seems like a typical bit of audience pandering. Now, he implicates us.

Why we find Sally appealing despite such self-destructive choices is her vulnerability. She lives life like a child, on impulse, openly, recklessly, wanting attention and affection, with little thought of the future. And then there’s her talent: Kate Wetherhead, who plays Sally, sings the hell out of her numbers. But if there’s a weakness in the Theater Center production it’s that Wetherhead seems about as vulnerable as a serrated edge. With her big eyes and thin, sharp physique, she seems a more driven figure, more addicted to the spotlight. In the first 15 minutes, we figure that unless something major changes, this party girl is definitely going to go like Elsie — and won’t be going with Cliff.

All of these considerations underline this fact: McCollum’s emcee now dominates the show. And it’s not just because of McCollum’s physical presence, the etched muscles on proud display, the rouged nipples and pop-eyed face. With Sally-and-Cliff tempering our sentimental, heterosexual romantic hopes, with Sally more like a down-and-out singer and not a Hollywood diva, the emcee, already a unique figure, inevitably stands out more — for his stage-manager powers and his leering cynicism about all that happens.

Ferrell has picked up on Sam Mendes’ environmental staging (amplified by Rob Marshall in the 1998 Roundabout Theatre version). We’re inside the Kit Kat Klub, in other words: Bob Lavalee’s set design in the Wyly Theatre puts a portion of the audience at ringside cafe tables. And as soon as he enters, the emcee starts taunting us. Ferrell has gone further and made the emcee omnipresent — and disturbingly ambivalent. He’s no longer just a denizen of the nightclub world. McCollum pops into other roles, notably playing an ominous, railroad guard demanding Cliff’s passport.

So he fools around with the Kit Kat Boys and Kit Kat Girls, flirts with audience members. And he even has fun with the Nazis. But to what end?

Thanks to Joel Grey, the emcee has always been an impish demon, but Ferrell and McCollum make him almost Satanic, the snake in the lost Eden of gay sexual freedom that Weimar Berlin has become for some. He does seem to know how everything will play out and not care — hence, his song, “I Don’t Care Much.” Like the show itself, he tests people, he tempts us, mocks other characters (and us). He opens the show by lying to us with a carnival barker’s sales pitch (“In here, life is beautiful“) and ends it by showing us the truth about a particular hell on earth.

That ending is a coup de theatre about the Holocaust. But it’s easy to make the big, bad Nazis the scary, Halloween boogeymen. It’s harder to show that Adolf Hitler’s ruthless political ends and means had tremendous appeal to a wide, middle-class audience — like us. Funny how years of economic collapse and bitter political stalemate will do that to you.

So Kander and Ebb knew what they were doing when they gave their show’s loveliest song – “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — to the National Socialists. It’s like a simple German folk melody  (I’ve always thought of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music), a folk melody that turns into a rousing march, a promise and, of course, a threat. That song is scarier than the show’s looming swastikas and leather boys. It can seduce.

Along these same lines, director Ferrell cast Chamblee Ferguson (left) — perhaps North Texas’ most likable actor — as Herr Ludwig, the Nazi courier who tries to recruit Cliff and Sally. Ludwig is the sweetest, most helpful character in the play — until his Brown Shirt thugs come out. Even if you know what’s coming, Ferrell’s first-act finale (with Lap Chi Chu’s lighting) is positively chilling  — and, yes, thrilling. Ferguson seems to have stepped straight out of director Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. It’s a feat to revive Hitler’s evil magic with such frisson.

With Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl’s gleaming and inhuman cinematic style was once nailed by critic Susan Sontag as quintessentially fascist. It was, she wrote, “frozen eroticism.”

Let that stand for the best in the Theater Center’s current production of Cabaret.

All images by Karen Almond.