By Ian Rigg
“There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany. It was the end of the world…and I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both fast asleep”
Writers feel a certain sense of duty in a dangerous time. We look on, and desperately believe that words can stop the world from destroying itself. It’s no wonder then, that in response to the current looming specter, when literal Nazis march the streets once again and the petulance of cruel men riding a wave of bastardized populism threatens to turn the Earth into a graveyard, that so many theatres are putting on Cabaret.
Every aspect of its resurgence into the zeitgeist has no doubt already been expounded upon. It would be futile to clack out some more, but to illuminate one fact – there has been no production in recent memory more vital, nor better captures the nightmare, than Paramount Theater’s Cabaret.
It is not a reinvention. It’s something more – a reawakening. And its wonderful, wicked and woeful dirge to a vainglorious age gone by (and another time we fear may be all too near) is not to be missed.
It helps to be led by bona fide genius Director and Choreographer Katie Spelman. Rather than get caught up in a concept, Spelman lets the material speak for itself through the talent of a superb cast and crew – in that way, the play is elevated to the level of high concept. Because as paradigm-shifting as the 1998 Broadway revival was, (as evidenced by all its imitators) its delightfully dark romp does not prove as compelling as Spelman’s mortifying memory play.
As the clack of Cliff Bradshaw’s typewriter cleverly crossfades into the opening drumroll, and the Emcee rises out of from the orchestra pit to the seminally jaunty opening, the production launches its apparent thesis statement: When we look upon the past with rose-colored glasses, the red flags just look like flags. And from the fog of memory leaps a tale of relationships in the looming shadow of the Third Reich.
Scottt Davis’ remarkable set lays the groundwork for the spectacle to come. Rather than a glittering nightclub, Davis depicts a realm of dilapidated decadence – peeling paint, grimy windows, but with a unique charm that’s seedy and scintillating, sordid and sexy. The towering masterpiece depicts this corner of Berlin as it likely was: the once glorious inheritor of a World War and a revolution, bombed-out, and hungry for someone to “make it great again” (in a nice detail, a rising tattered burgundy curtain becomes a closing crimson gossamer by the end of the act)
It’s the ingenious lighting design of Yael Lubetzky that thrusts it into the glow of nostalgia. The Kit Kat Klub begins as a dark and wistful dream, instantly transmuting the ramshackle revue into a lively bohemian bacchanalia. But Lubetzky smartly lets the lighting grow increasingly stark and sinister as the show progresses.
To make the material edgy and impactful, costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg didn’t have to put the actors in leather trench coats and bondage gear: instead she renders a world of faded and seductive 1930s glamor that speaks for itself.
Adam Rosenthal’s thorough sound design captures the smallest detail like the click of typewriter keys, conjuring the vivid minutiae that stand out in memory, and lets the performances ring out.
With the fantastic framework set for them, the phenomenal cast is the spark that brings the work roaring to life. Music Director and Conductor Tom Vendafreddo inspires brilliant performances of intense impact and supreme vocal control, and Spelman’s incredible choreography is not to be missed. It’s Dionysian depravity one minute, to the avant-garde movement of a Die Brucke painting the next, to a Rockette chorus line from Hell to start act two. The movement is sensual, sinister and showstopping all at the same time.
The chorus fully realize their roles and flesh out the iconic dive and its surrounding underbelly. It’s because of them that the rest of this world’s inhabitants can shine in all their glory (or despicability) – to the point that they feel like real people audiences have met.
Like Meghan Murphy as Fraulein Kost, the deliciously vapid sailor’s favorite, whose closeted racist views come out when she’s had too many. Or Brandon Springman’s masterfully understated evil turn as Ernst Ludwig – a charismatic character whose subtle evil is revealed too late. He’s the affable acquaintance spouting right-wing rhetoric on Facebook, insisting with an increasingly steely smile that we can all still be “friends”.
Ron E. Rains will simply break your heart. His Herr Schultz shuffles and stumbles through conversations amiably, but his lovable exterior belies a fierce optimism and conviction. Rains’ empathic delivery and stirring vocal talent leave no doubt who the truest German in the play is.
Hollis Resnik nails every nuance of Fraulein Scneider. She is an actress at the peak of her powers, and her powerful voice, delightful and dirgeful acting, and construction of onstage relationships will leave the audience aching. If Rains will break your heart, Resnik will shatter it.
Garrett Lutz is no audience-insert cipher: he aces Cliff with a square-jawed charm, with a darker edge as he fights an internal battle through his arc. The role is in quite capable typing hands. (and asserts validity to Cliff’s bisexuality, too).
As the Emcee, Joseph Anthony Byrd is simply in a class of his own. He is all fluid charisma and impeccable dance moves, with incredible vocal chops (his rendition of “I Don’t Care Much” is to-die-for). His powerhouse performance is only boosted by the directorial decision not to make the Emcee not the malevolent architect.
Instead, the Emcee is something perhaps more terrifying: a bystander. Spelman cleverly places him in the background of other scenes. He locks eyes with Cliff in the crowd of the chilling “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” (modified to come over a crackling radio and instilling a sense of growing national terror). He turns away from the anti-Jewish fervor and throbbing bass of looming goosesteps at the end of act one. This is perhaps Byrd’s deft performance at its best: keenly aware of the ascending authoritarianism, mortified at the impending malice, but unable (or unwilling) to do anything about it. It’s all right there in his expressive eyes. It makes for an incredibly compelling take on the character.
But the central character of Cabaret, the perennial favorite, is Sally Bowles. How lucky is this production, then, to have Kelly Felthous. In a role that could settle for merely myopic and vapid, Felthous portrays the Kit Kat Klub singer as a deeply wounded soul beneath a bubbly and whimsical façade. Her edgy charisma is manic pixie dreamgirl in the midst of a nightmare: she turns a blind eye to rising turmoil in the world and within herself not because she is incapable, but because she can’t bear to look. The moment when she finally does is heart-rending magic. With an incredible voice, flair for movement, and a smile just on the verge of a breakdown, Felthous turns the titular song into a masterclass that simply must be attended.
Paramount’s peerless production excels because another of its greatest characters is never seen: doom. The looming specter of fascism hangs heavily in the air. Dread pervades the proceedings and impending doom lurks around all the lovers’ corners, culminating in an astonishing final image that cannot be spoiled by a review. Its tension is palpable, its passion undeniable, and its message unmistakable: while fascism is evil, it only prevails if people surrender every shred of love in favor of returning to the “golden days”.
Where are your troubles now?
Paramount Theatre presents “Cabaret” at 23 E Galena Boulevard, Aurora, through March 18. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.