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Theater Review: Cabaret

The cast of Ghostlight Theatre's production of "Cabaret"
Courtesy Ghostlight Theatre
Ghostlight Theatre
The cast of Ghostlight Theatre's production of "Cabaret"

Benton Harbor’s GhostLight Theatre recently opened its revival of the musical “Cabaret.” WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

First an observation. During the early Seventies, I directed a production of “Cabaret.” Although the show I put on the stage, like the current revival of “Cabaret” at GhostLight Theatre, was set at the dawn of the Nazi party in Weimar Germany, the script I worked with - and at least some of the score - contained moments of innocence and optimism to fling in the monstrous face of rising fascism. 

Director Paul Mow’s production of “Cabaret” at GhostLight is much darker, far more ominous, and in touch with the reality of the current political climate.

And now a confession: for all those reasons and more, I like this version of the script, score, and production, better than the show I directed half a century ago.

GhostLight’s version seems to take some cues from the Sam Mendes-directed revival of “Cabaret” in the 1990’s, which featured Alan Cumming as Emcee.

And it is the physical presentation and brooding presence of the Emcee, delivered in a riveting performance by Braden Allison, that lifts this character, and the show itself, into the realm of zeitgeist for an age on the precipice of genocide and global destruction. 

Unlike the tuxedo wearing, diminutive Joel Grey of “Cabaret’s” past, Allison’s tall, lithe, slinking, cross-dressing pansexual Emcee appears bare-chested, nipples painted black, wearing a bow tie pinned to the crossed suspenders of his lederhosen.

As the show opens with the spunky “Willkommen,” a white-faced Allison leers at his audience, calling them out, inviting them to drink, partake of the flesh, and forget the troubles of the world outside. The effect is edgy, seductive, and menacing.

GhostLight’s playing space undergoes an atmospheric transformation into the Kit Kat Club, a smoke-filled Berlin gin mill from the late 1920’s. The club’s dancers, male and female, moonlight as painted, lingerie clad prostitutes, while a raucous orchestra provides up-tempo, foot-tapping overtures and scintillating musical support.  

Along the way, the Emcee and the club’s Kit Kat Dancers roar through several tightly choreographed, bawdy numbers, including the raucous and incendiary, “Money, Money.” 

The club’s featured singer, Sally Bowles, played by Meggie Anderson, sets the tone with “Don’t Tell Mama.” The song is an appealing introduction with a naughty wink to the seamy crowd, as well as a nod to her own liquor-ridden, man-hopping lifestyle. 

Her first hop in the show is club pick-up Cliff Bradshaw, played by Brady West, a young American novelist looking for a room and subject matter for his next novel. Anderson’s forward and assuming Sally soon persuades Cliff that she could meet both needs with the song “Perfectly Marvelous.”   

One of the production’s most appealing aspects is a strong second couple. Cliff’s Landlady Fraulein Schneider, played by Jodie Wilson, shows us the backbone of a woman who has survived war and social upheaval in the gritty number, “So What?”

Michael Riggenbach, as Herr Schultz, brings a strong tenor to duets with Wilson in “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married.”  The couple provides welcome comic relief and later a poignant note with the realization that the engagement of Schneider to a Jew has no future. 

The first act concludes with one of the show’s most powerful moments. At the outset, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a seemingly innocent anthem to the future. At the end of the song, however, a chorus of party guests has morphed into a horrific mob with swastika armbands giving “Sieg Heil!” straight-arm salutes.

By the end of Paul Mow’s savvy two-and-a-half-hour production, the transformations of German society and the characters are clearly detailed. The make-up and lipstick of the prostitutes is smeared. Their come-on smiles have gone dead pan. Meggie Anderson’s Sally Bowles, formerly a free-spirited soul, delivers the title number as a washed out, emotionally broken prisoner of the Kit Kat Club. And the Emcee, who previously invited us to forget the world outside the club, now appears hollow-eyed as a different kind of prisoner.

After all, this ain’t your grandpa’s “Cabaret”.

A former station manager of WMUK, Gordon Bolar is now the station's theater reviewer.