It’s now five decades on from when Broadway audiences were first welcomed into the seedy Kit Kat Klub.
With a book by Joe Masteroff and music and lyrics from the legendary team of Kander and Ebb, Cabaret is based on a novel written by Englishman Christopher Isherwood. It tells a story of Berlin in the early 1930s, as the Weimar Republic was declining and Hitler’s National Socialists were on the rise. It was a time when Berlin found itself the hub of a thriving cultural and arts scene.
It’s in that climate that Clifford Bradshaw (Jason Kos), an American writer, arrives in Berlin in the hope of finding inspiration for his next novel. He comes upon The Kit Kat Klub and meets ‘The Emcee’ (Paul Capsis), a somewhat twisted ringmaster, who becomes overseer of not just the events that unfold within the walls of the decadent nightspot, but of the darkness descending on the world outside in the form of rising fascism.
At the club, Bradshaw meets Sally Bowles (Chelsea Gibb), an effervescent headline performer of considerable talent, and a relationship between the two ensues while living at the guest house of Fräulein Schneider (Kate Fitzpatrick). It’s a romance that belies Bradshaw’s homosexuality.
Through the club acts, we witness the vibrant arts scene fall victim to a political ideology that sees it as evidence of moral decay in Germany. As Cabaret unfolds, we learn that the German friend Bradshaw has made, Ernst Ludwig (Marcus Graham) aligns himself with the increasingly popular fascists; we see a Jewish fruit shop owner, Herr Schultz (John O’May), subjected to increasingly blatant antisemitism; and we see an abundance of bystanders – people we’re not persuaded subscribe to the Nazi ideology but, through their inertia, are complicit in the horror that will ultimately follow.
As the tension builds, Bradshaw resolves to leave Berlin for America with Bowles. However, she longs to remain in the limelight. A sign of the wilful blindness permeating the whole world, she is determined to remain in Berlin and continue to pursue stardom and her freedom.
Cabaret has an important place on the stage today. In fact, in the Trump era, where the newly-elected US president ran on a controversial platform that had the message of ‘Making America great again’ at its core, and with a strident populism sweeping across Europe, this production has resonance.
As a piece of musical theatre, Cabaret is strong, owing to an excellent score (featuring some absolutely iconic tracks) and a solid book. But the challenge today, in making sure Cabaret is as effective as it can be, is to ensure its political through-line remains crystal clear right the way through. Director Nicholas Christo has created a version of Cabaret that is visually striking, entertaining and almost relentless in terms of the athleticism it has on display. But it’s a version that needs to signpost the emerging political undercurrent more clearly from the outset. It’s something that really becomes clear at the point when a young man (played by Matthew Manahan) launches into a performance of ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’ towards the end of the first act. The song is a clarion call to youth to mobilise for their country, characterised by lyrics geared at stirring deep feelings of patriotism, and its reprise directly before interval is significant in its impact. The direction of the finale also ensures it packs a punch. But this production seems to want to emphasise the sexual climate without linking this to the ultimate response from the Nazis which was to purge Germany of so-called western degeneracy.
But there’s much to be praised in the current revival. On the performance side, O’May and Fitzpatrick are wonderful as the older pair that have found love. Their acting choices are consistently strong, and when Fitzpatrick performs the powerful ‘What would you do?’ in act two, despite not being a natural singer, she’s effective in her efforts to ensure the tragedy of the situation is felt, but also in ensuring audiences are pressed to think about their own behaviours at a time where inaction condemns those around them to terrible fates.
As Fräulein Kost, a prostitute and a tenant of Schneider’s guest house, Debora Krizak is also outstanding. Her characterisation is impeccable, giving you a sense she’s been plucked straight from the Berlin of the early 1930s. In Krizak’s Kost, we see the patent desperation of one trying to survive on the fringes, encapsulating just one of the coming regime’s victims, seen as responsible for Germany’s problems.
In the role of Ernst Ludwig, Graham makes us wish we saw him more frequently on our stages. It’s another solid performance, which sees him conveying from the outset that there’s something about Ludwig that’s not be trusted, that there’s more to this German ‘businessman’ than meets the eye. In his portrayal of the character, the foundations are properly laid for the later revelation of his Nazi associations.
As the conservative but confused Bradshaw, Kos convinces and his tenor vocals are well and truly up to the task. And while his character is written as reserved, there’s an opportunity for Kos to show more strength in his performance as Bradshaw in the first act, establishing the key role as a greater presence from the start. As Bowles, Gibb certainly has the gutsy belt and is most successful in bringing out the quirkiness and waywardness of the star performer she’s tasked with portraying, but during the show-stopper she was so defiant from the outset, it felt like there was nowhere to take us.
As The Emcee, Capsis has presence in spades and his persona is larger than life, and then some. He moves swiftly around the space with ease but, perhaps, there’s a need for more nuance in his performance. Vocally, he needs to pull back, as there were times when he tended to be shrill and overreaching.
Having said that, this is a solid lead cast supported by a tight and totally committed ensemble. Choreography by Kelly Abbey is sharp, technically impressive, and entirely appropriate, and it’s wonderfully executed by the entire cast. Lindsay Patridge’s musical direction of the Kit Kat Klub band is similarly commendable.
James Browne has managed to create a remarkable set, in terms of its visual impact and scale. It’s very much the perfect stage for Cabaret (and it will transfer well to the roomier Athenaeum when Cabaret makes the move to Melbourne). There are some great costumes, especially those of the club’s performers, and Rob Sowinski makes sure the entire production is capped off with the period lighting looks we’d expect to see.
Christo’s 2017 staging of Cabaret demonstrates why this classic Kander and Ebb piece should be kept alive and well in our world. It’s a reminder to us all that when we say ‘Never Again’, we need to remember that such vigilance requires a duty of us all not to be bystanders.
Cabaret plays at the Hayes Theatre (Sydney) until 5 March and has now sold out. The show moves to the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne from 27 April and tickets for the Melbourne season can be purchased here