Review by Martha Heimberg
The smiling Emcee opens his arms to the noisy, excited crowd at the Kit Kat Club, a seedy Berlin nightclub in 1930s Berlin smartly recreated with tables up front at Arts Mission Oak Cliff [AMOC]. The five-member band onstage strikes up the opening burlesque tune “Willkommen”. The Emcee in a top hat and tux begins singing the famous song from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1963 groundbreaking musical Cabaret. Everybody in the sold-out house whistles and shouts.
We’re off and cheering at the gaudy, gritty, and immersive show, jointly produced by The Lost Boy Presents and AMOC, and directed by Sasha Maya Ada with a daring realism. It starts with a bang and a drum roll. Our grinning Emcee [a ballsy, vulgar Brian Harden, who is also the company founder] rips off his tux, piece by piece, throws a sleeve to the audience, tosses his top hat, and lets his long hair drop to his shoulders, and finishes the number stripped to garters and a bare chest. Talk about letting it all hangout.
The diverse chorus, baring their busts and bottoms, circle the tables and dance down the aisles with a wink and a thrust, in Avery-Jai Andrews’ come-and-get-it burlesque-style choreography. Brandon Tyner’s hot band is onstage throughout, flirting with the chorus and accompanying the high kicks and wiggles.
The denials and tawdry decadence of the era just before the Nazis took over Germany are immediately established. The show focuses on a gay young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw [a boyish Cameron Casey], and his affair with the British Kit Kat star Sally Bowles [a streetwise, politically naïve Abigail Palmgren]. Act I is all-party. Palmgren’s Sally has the pipes and the pizazz to fill the high-ceilinged hall with her big numbers, “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr”, the latter ensconced in a big golden chair and surrounded by the bottoms-up chorus.
Once Sally has convinced Cliff to let her move in with him in his tiny boarding house room, the two do a charming version of “Perfectly Marvelous Girl,” the one scene where the two create a little physical spark together. Her touching, hopeful rendition of “Maybe this Time” got a special round of applause. By the time she’s been through the mill of another failing romance and a surprise pregnancy, her bitter, strident retake on the title song is purely wrenching.
The other romance involving an older German couple is even more telling about the swelling Nazi threat. Sally Diamond’s Fraulein Schneider, who runs the boarding house where Cliff lives, is a widowed warrior, good-hearted, but not expecting much from life. The neighboring fruit market owner, Herr Schultz [an elegant, gentlemanly Kenne Earl] brings her a pineapple, singing a lovely duet evoking love late in life. Later, their hymn to “Marriage” has couples holding hands throughout the theater. But when Nazi armbands begin appearing in the neighborhood, he’s so trusting that even though he’s Jewish, he believes because he is German there will be no problem. She sees their impossible future before he does, and the sadness of true love crushed by ruthless politics is heartbreaking. The sound system earlier in the show was off, distorting Diamond’s voice to a screech in places. By the time she sings “What Would You Do?,” where the nuance and strength of the survivor.
The first act ends with the beautiful “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, the Nazi anthem. But this time it’s delivered with a fierce attitude, led by the brazen boarding house prostitute Fritzie [Andrews in aggressive mode].
Act Two is shorter and much darker [the show runs two hours and 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission to buy drinks. Alcohol sales support AMOC]. Romance is shattered, and more friends reveal themselves as Nazis. When the Emcee dances comically around with his lover in a gorilla costume to “If They Could See Her Through My Eyes”, he declares she’s not the animal the Nazis believe, even though “she’s a Jew.” A dramatic sudden costume drop at this point is so perfect, I won’t spoil the effect with too much detail.
More ugly surprises follow until at last, the Cabaret is over and the full effect of the approaching Holocaust horrors are ringing in the air in a simple and profoundly terrifying ending you need to see for yourself. I urge you to do just that.
Tickets range from $25 for general admission to $175 for a table seating four with cocktail service. The show runs through January 21; check artsmissionoc.org for times and tickets.