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Cabaret was first staged on Broadway in 1966, although its literary pedigree goes back several more decades. More than anything else, its success in production hinges on this: is it as chilling as it should be? Do the various gut punches hit as hard as they should? Director Keith Baker’s new production of Cabaret at Bristol Riverside Theatre, in addition to superlative singing and acting, passes those tests.
The disturbing menace that was the gradual rise of the Nazis is felt acutely here, as it should—job one for any production of Cabaret. Not only are such famed numbers as “Wilkommen,” “Mein Herr,” “Cabaret,” and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” presented well, but they deliver the devastating emotional payoffs that they should. The show runs through Sunday, April 16, 2023.
Waning days of the Weimar Republic
For those unfamiliar, Cabaret’s book was written by Joe Masteroff, with music by the legendary team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. The show takes place in 1929 and 1930 in Berlin during the decadent, waning days of the Weimar Republic. The setting is the Kit Kat Klub, presided over by the Emcee (here, Christian Elán Ortiz), while the star of the show is Sally Bowles (Jenny Lee Stern). The third leading character is Clifford Bradshaw (Chris French), an American writer who comes to town and gets into a complex relationship with Sally.
Ortiz nails the role of the Emcee, and his costumes (designed by Linda B. Stockton) must be seen to be believed, while Stern—with blond hair, an English accent, and great emotional range—is not merely doing an impression of Liza Minnelli.
Cabaret is set on the eve of the Nazi takeover of Germany, and as it goes on, fascism encroaches little by little on the club, on Berlin, and on the show itself.
Especially crucial is the “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” number, which in this production closes the first act. As written by Kander and Ebb—two men who were each Jewish, gay, and resolutely anti-fascist—it starts out sounding like a classic German folk song, as sung by one person, before slowly and clearly becoming a fascist anthem by a large, goose-stepping group. It’s one of the most chilling things in all of musical theater, and for more than a half-century, theatergoers have caught themselves humming this catchy tune to themselves during intermission.
Real-life fascists, for decades, have adopted “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” unironically as an anthem. And of course, like Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret is one of those shows that seems to have new contemporary real-world resonance every single time it’s revived.
A changing Cabaret
Another big gut punch is “If You Could See Her,” in which the Emcee sings a romantic song to someone in an ape costume, before concluding with “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Some productions over the years have removed that line, but the Bristol one wisely kept it in. It’s an uncomfortable line, but a devastating one.
And that’s an important thing about Cabaret: it originated from Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, and was later adapted first into John Van Druten's 1951 play I Am a Camera, and later into Cabaret in 1966. It was made into a movie by Bob Fosse in 1972, with Minnelli and Joel Grey both winning Oscars as Sally and the Emcee, and has been revived numerous times on Broadway and the West End over the years, most notably in a massive hit version in the 1990s. In all of those different versions, the story has had massive variables and changes.
Songs are added and dropped and put in a different order, with a couple of songs that weren’t in the original show added for the movie and kept for subsequent stage revivals. Sometimes Sally is American, while other times she’s British. Sometimes Clifford, like the real Isherwood, is gay; sometimes he’s bisexual; and sometimes (as in the film) he has a different name. The movie completely excised a major subplot and replaced it with a different one. Different characters in different versions start off singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and the Emcee meets all sorts of fates, depending on the version.
A worthy presentation
The Bristol production, for the most part, makes the right choices when it comes to these things, starting with keeping the “she wouldn’t look Jewish” line. The ending, as it’s presented, is strikingly moving. I was especially impressed with the “Cabaret” number, which Stern sings as if she were going through a nervous breakdown.
If you’re looking for a breezy, happy night at the theater, that’s not what Cabaret is. It’s a show in which someone associated with the production, at some point, had to make an uncomfortable call to a costume shop or supplier to order up some Nazi armbands (as in 2018’s The Producers, which was the last show I saw at Bristol before this one). But Cabaret is a worthy presentation of one of the great shows in the American musical theater canon.
What, When, Where
Cabaret. By Joe Masteroff, John Kander, and Fred Ebb; directed by Keith Baker. Through April 16, 2023, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. (215) 785-0100 or brtstage.org.
Bristol Riverside Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue, with accessible seating available for all performances. Patrons with questions about accessibility can contact the box office at (215) 785-0100.
Masks are optional.
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