Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Shaw's "The Cabaret" brilliantly staged, but the ending confounds

When “Cabaret,” with book by Joe Masteroff, and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, opened on Broadway in 1966, audience members were fascinated by the lack of a stage curtain blocking their view beyond the proscenium arch.  Instead, a huge convex mirror was placed center stage.  As each person walked down the aisle to their seats, their distorted figures reflected back at them. 

The musical, based on John Van Druten’s play, “I Am A Camera,” and stories by Christopher Isherwood, showcases the Nazi rise to power in Germany.   Hal Prince, the director, not only wanted to tell that story, but also to make each member of the audience aware that what happened in that time period could happen to their society as well.  To do this, he used the “distancing effect” made famous by Bertolt Brecht, which centered on the theatrical techniques of “historification,” “alienation” and “epic.” 

“Historifiction” centers on presenting a story illustrating some action that has happened in such a way that the audience is aware of it also being applicable to their lives, to today. 

“Alienation” centers on using staging techniques, such as the convex mirror, to stop the audience from losing themselves completely in the play’s narrative.  It forces them to be conscious, critical observers, realize that they are in a theatre watching a play.  Actors speak directly to the audience, viewers see the lighting fixtures, and view the exposed back wall of the theatre.

“Epic” refers to the topic being discussed being bigger than ordinary, not just everyday happenings.  What the play is about is an important issue.

Most musicals of that day started with an overture.  Prince added to the distancing by staging “Cabaret” with a drum roll and symbol crash leading into the opening number.  Social commentary was inserted between scenes and songs to alert the audience to the issues being illuminated.  The unexpected was present, such as having a gorilla and the master of ceremonies do a soft shoe dance, while illustrating a poignant Nazi issue, equating Jews with being animals, not humans.

The musical takes place in 1931 in the seedy Kit Kat Klub, an entertainment venue for gays, prostitutes and the “slumming” Berliners, whose entertainment is presided over by the Emcee.  That character speaks and sings directly to the audience, serving much like a Greek chorus, to comment on what is happening.  

The story centers around a 19-year old English cabaret performer, Sally Bowles, who develops a relationship with Cliff Bradshaw, a young American writer.  A subplot involves a doomed romance between Cliff’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. 

The Broadway opening in 1966, ran for 1655 performances, with Clevelander Joel Grey as the Emcee, Jill Haworth as Sally, Bert Convey as Cliff, and Bertolt Brecht’s wife, Lotte Lenya, as Fräulein Schneider. 

The 1968 London show used basically the same script as the Broadway show.

The script was changed considerably for the 1993 London revival. The Emcee morphed from the asexual character as portrayed by Grey, to an edgy, highly sexualized Alan Cummings, bare-chested, clad in suspenders slung around his crotch and red painted nipples. Songs were sexually charged and the music took on a sharp and often grating synthesized sound.  “Money,” “I Don’t Care Much,” “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time” were added to the score.  The latter two were taken from the multi-Academy Award winning movie which featured Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli.

The Shaw Festival’s “Cabaret,” a cross between the original and revival script, is brilliantly staged by Peter Hinton, though his choice for an ending confounds.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s stylized, metal tinker toy, multi-leveled, contemporary set, placed on a revolving turntable, is both a work of art and ingenious.   It allows Hinton and choreographer Denise Clarke to twine bodies into various sexual and compelling positions.  The flow of characters on the various flat and step levels provides for a texturing to the story and the interweaving of relationships. 

Clarke’s choreography is excellent, often compelling.  The only flaw might be the decision to have the Gorilla in “If You Could See Her” pick its nose and scratch for bugs.  This distracts from the serious intention of the song and adds misleading humor.

Paul Sportelli’s musical arrangements help build the play’s underbelly. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” Kander and Ebb’s “Nazi National Anthem,” are downright scary.  (Yes, that song was written for “Cabaret,” it is not a historical Nazi song.)

The cast is excellent.  Juan Chiorann, though he might have been more sensual, develops a clear characterization as Emcee.  Deborah Hay fortunately does not do a Liza Minnelli imitation as Sally.  Hers is a unique characterization.  Her interpretation of the song, “Cabaret,” adds a foreboding dimension to what many don’t perceive as a strong message song.  She is totally believable as the angst driven, conflicted Sally.

Gray Powell develops a convincing Cliff, a young American trying to escape from his sexuality and his nation’s traditions against it, by entering into a world of decadence, but who still has scruples.  Corrine Koslo as Fraulein Schneider and Benedict Campbell as Herr Schultz each create an authentic person.  Her “What Would You Do,” is a clear message of the personal conflict of non-political Germans as they face the reality of the power of the Nazis and the implications for not giving in to Hitler’s intimidation.  Herr Schultz’s naivety of believing because he perceives he is a German first, and a Jew second, and that he, and his fellow religious community will be spared by Hitler, is highlighted.

Hinton’s decision to end the production as he did ruined what was, until then, a completely amazing production.  As presented, the production ended as Cliff was leaving the country.  A body was revealed hanging in the midst of the steelwork.  Blackout!

A discussion at our B and B table the next morning revealed that most people did not see the body.  Those who did didn’t understand its presence.  Others wondered why the play had “No message ending.”  It was explained that in the newer versions of the play, the Emcee and gay Kit Kat male dancers, with pink triangles attached to their costumes, and Herr Schultz and others with gold stars of David attached to them, were dragged off stage in the opposite direction of Cliff.

That ending brings full circle the use of the “distancing effect” and highlights the intent of the authors.  It would have given the audience the needed message that, as Cliff says to Sally, “If you’re not against all this, you’re for it,” and emphasizes each person’s responsibility, as explained in philosopher Edmund Burke’s concept, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Capsule judgement:  “Cabaret” is one of the American musical theatre’s greatest scripts.  The Shaw production is technically and musically extremely well done.  The production loses its compass as the conclusion leaves issues unresolved, with the shock value eliminated.  Audiences who want entertainment should be very satisfied, those wanting clarity of purpose will be frustrated.