Ah, the holiday theater season. Time for familiar music, wholesome cheer, nudity, politics, simulated sex, and dripping blood. At least at the Ashby Playhouse, where the Shotgun Players once again resist the Dickensian compulsion by staging Masteroff, Kander, and Ebb's debauched Cabaret through the end of the year.
There's plenty of glitter; it just happens to be attached to the scantily-dressed Kit Kat Girls wriggling through the audience before the show starts, sitting on laps, practicing their handstands on the small stage so their frilly panties show. And there's certainly holiday cheer in the lobby, if you count it being done up in an overblown brothelesque style. In fact, the whole show has production values. Cabaret opens on a New Year's Eve in a seedy Berlin nightclub, and it's completely tricked out, with Valera Coble's fancy costumes on Sally, the EmCee, and the Kit Kat Girls.
Other than the splashiness, Cabaret is a return for Shotgun in many ways -- not only to Berlin (this is its second Berlin-based show this season) and the period between the two world wars, but to a particularly reckless, confrontational theater that makes the audience complicit in some sort of bad behavior or another. Not bad for a musical.
Clifford Bradshaw, a version of writer Christopher Isherwood (whose Berlin Stories inspired the musical and film), has come to Weimar Berlin to write his great novel, a task at which he fails miserably once the boisterous, demanding Sally Bowles trips into his life and blithely turns everything upside down. Cassidy Brown's Cliff goes along with what people ask of him, starting to resist only late in the game when he realizes that the little errands he's running for the dapper Ernst Ludwig aren't so innocent.
Isherwood's Sally "sang badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides -- yet her performance was, in its own way, effective because of her startling appearance and her air of not caring a curse what people thought of her." Kimberly Dooley is surprising as Sally; not only can she sing, but her work with Shotgun up until this point hasn't suggested that she could sustain a lead role. But she's bouncy and light here, and easy to believe as a girl who desperately wants think of herself as "mysterious and fascinating" when she's mostly clueless and transparent. Her rendition of "Mein Herr" is her most intense moment; dipping her head so she's looking at the audience from under her lashes gives her a little needed darkness as she growls out Goodbye, my lieber Herr/It was a fine affair, but now it's over in an understated British accent.
For a while, Cliff and Sally focus on having a marvelous time, going to parties, swallowing prairie oysters, sleeping late. But things are changing, both inside and outside their room in Fraulein Schneider's flat. Things perhaps only the EmCee (a perfectly cast Clive Worsley) really understands. The basic ambiguity of the EmCee becomes more obvious here. Joel Grey, who starred both in the original Broadway version and then the film and is thus the yardstick by which every other EmCee is judged, made the character completely amoral. Worsley goes a little more political, although he's as dissipated and menacing as you could possibly desire. This EmCee knows what's going on outside, and he's angry about it; his worst beliefs about people are being proven true. None of which is making him buy a train ticket out, though. Like poor doomed Jewish greengrocer Herr Schulz, the EmCee thinks he will be able to ride out the Nazis.
This production uses songs from both the original 1966 stage version and the 1972 film. The music is great, flowing from a small orchestra clad in white tuxes and tucked along the stage left wall. When they're not playing songs, the musicians back up the action with incidental sound; a drum providing the sounds of a journey by rail and so forth. However the singing is spotty; in some places it's much more emotionally truthful than it is skilled, such as in Fraulein Schneider's "What Would You Do?"
Director Russell Blackwood was an inspired choice for this sprawling story of decadence and decay. A tireless advocate of the violent, shocking Grand Guignol style of theater, he knows how to make an audience respond. He's got his work cut out for him; perhaps only in a Bay Area theater will people react more strongly to the sight of a woman swallowing a helpless raw egg than to that of another proving that she can get her own nipple into her mouth. Although with E. coli and bird flu going around, maybe the first really is more shocking. But audiences may be relieved to see that this show isn't nearly as bloody as it might have been.
The lack of viscera doesn't mean it's not visceral. Quite the opposite; a month in Berlin didn't hit me with the weight of history the way the opening night performance did when Blackwood managed to get a Berkeley audience to merrily sing along to the Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." Blackwood and the EmCee bring the point home: Collusion with evil is a lot easier than we like to think.
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