Earlier this week, the legendary musical Cabaret opened at TPAC’s Jackson Hall for a week’s worth of performances during the Nashville leg of the show’s current national tour, with performances continuing at TPAC thru Sunday, March 4.
For those who’ve been sitting alone in your room for the past half-century, Cabaret, takes place in the artistically expressive and socially bawdy nightlife of Weimar, Germany on the threshold of Hitler’s history-changing regime. The show debuted on Broadway in 1966 featuring music and lyrics by musical theatre icons John Kander & Fred Ebb with book by Joe Masteroff. That original production drew its source material from John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, as well as prominent author Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s semi-autobiographical novels Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin Goodbye to Berlin. In these works, Isherwood fictionalized his 1929 move to Berlin where he taught English, explored his sexuality and developed a friendship with nightclub singer, Jean Ross. I mention Ross simply because she was the real-life inspiration for Cabaret’s chanteuse, Sally Bowles.
Like a handful of other Broadway shows, over the years Cabaret has had its share of revivals, reinterpretations and adaptations. Beyond its Broadway debut, Cabaret’s more notable resurrections include the Bob Fosse-directed 1972 film version starring Liza Minelli, Michael York and Joel Grey and the 1993 London stage revival directed by Sam Mendes and starring Jane Horrocks (Absolutely Fabulous’ Bubble) as Sally Bowles and Alan Cumming as The Emcee. That lead to a 1998 Broadway revival that began at Henry Miller’s Theatre and transitioned more appropriately to Studio 54. Again, Mendes was on-board. Joining him for the return to Broadway was Rob Marshall as co-director and choreographer, offering a hefty nod to the choreography of Fosse’s film. A subsequent 2014 revival of that production is in fact the basis for the current national tour with BT McNicholl now at the tour’s helm as director and choreographer Jennifer Werner as choreographer.
Cast in the role of The Emcee is Erik Schneider. Channeling Alan Cumming with every deliciously indecorous ounce of his being, Schneider’s Emcee is like a prepubescent man/child who’s just discovered the more lascivious aspects of life and can’t wait to share them with everyone. With the show’s licentious opening number, Willkommen, Schneider’s Emcee playfully, seductively spits out double-entendre after double-entendre with enough pelvic thrusts to make even Rocky Horror’s Dr. Frank N. Furter blush. Having seen Cabaret on Broadway, as well as half a dozen regional mountings, even I struggled to catch each tongue-in-cheek barb of Schneider’s opening number due to the fact that either there were some slight mic issues (his vocals just didn’t seem as loud as the rest of the cast) or because his tone stays so close to that of the orchestration that it was often a challenge hearing his lyrics over the music itself. Nonetheless, at times equally exuding raunchy sexuality juxtaposed with childlike fear and innocence, Schneider’s Emcee is just as entrancing during Money (a song adapted for the stage musical after it was added to the film’s soundtrack) and the more hauntingly somber I Don’t Care Much (Schneider’s absolute high-point of the show) as he is the salaciously silly Two Ladies.
Carl Pariso is cast as Clifford Bradshaw, an American writer who travels to Berlin searching for inspiration for his new novel. What he finds is an underground society filled with artists, non-conformists, sexual freedom and a Nazi or two. Pariso’s Cliff manages a depth I’ve personally never seen in the character before. He plays Bradshaw with a mix of innocence and discovery, paired with caution and an understanding consequence of actions that allows the underlying themes of the work to ease their way into the audience’s subconscious. When he does perform his sole musical number, Perfectly Marvelous, a duet with his leading lady, he is…well…perfectly marvelous indeed.
Starring as the aforementioned Sally Bowles is Bailey McCall Thomas. Like a few of her fellow cast members, this is Thomas’ first national tour, but in spite of her youth and relative inexperience with life on the road, she brings a welcomed spirit to the role. I’ve always appreciated the playwright’s clever mirroring of The Emcee and Sally. As playful as he is in Two Ladies, Thomas’ Sally matches him wink by wink in Don’t Tell Mama. Thomas is also allowed to show her range of emotion with a tellingly poignant performance of Maybe This Time, but of course her performance truly comes down to how she takes on the show’s titular tune near the close of the show. Even with all the previously mentioned reincarnations, I’d venture to say that a huge percentage of the audience is still most familiar with Cabaret because of Liza Minelli’s star turn in the film. I’ve always been stuck by how self-assured the otherwise attention-craving Sally seems in Minelli’s performance of the song, Cabaret. Thomas does indeed belt it out like she’s “going like Elsie” as the song’s lyrics tout. But there’s more to her performance. It seems somehow more layered, perhaps because I witnessed it live on stage, rather than in the confines of my home on a tv screen, or maybe, just maybe Thomas is just that good. Sure, she’s trying to not only convince herself and the audience that life is a cabaret, but, in doing so, she’s acutely aware that there is life outside the cabaret. If Thomas’ performance is any indication, she…and Sally…are more than ready to take it all on.
Other notable performances come courtesy Fred Frabotta and Audrey Federici as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. Frabotta’s Schultz is an elderly jewish man and Federici’s Schneider, his unexpected fiancee who’s also Cliff and Sally’s landlady. As I mentioned when I chatted with Federici and others from the cast for my latest edition of my recurring interview segment, Rapid Fire 20 Q, Frabotta and Federici, as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, provide the show with a nice respite from the bawdiness of the club scenes as they unexpectedly embark on a romance. Their duet It Couldn’t Please Me More (The Pineapple Song) is sheer perfection. As always, even during their ostensibly saccharined number, the ever-present Emcee and the girls of the club interject a little spirited risquéness by cavorting suggestively with light-up pineapples of their own.
Speaking of the girls of The Kit Kat Klub, Adriana Milbrath is wickedly fun as Fraulein Kost, who in addition to working with Sally at the club is also another boarder at Fraulein Schneider’s house. When not at the club, she’s still a working girl, one with a penchant for doing her duty to service the military any time she can. The role of Fraulein Kost isn’t a huge role, but significant in that she provides the oft darker tone of the show with genuine laughs thanks to the actress’s spot-on comedic talent and she also perfectly represents one of many hints that not everyone is what they appear.
Of course you can’t have Fraulein Kost entertaining the troops without the troops, to that end, as The Emcee points out early on in the show, the chorus boys and girls provide plenty of eye candy that they back up with an abundance of talent throughout.
Earlier, I mentioned the song Two Ladies and I can’t wrap this review without mentioning two ladies. On opening night in Nashville, there were two ladies (and I use that term tightly) sitting behind my friend and I. We chatted a little before the show began, and to my surprise neither had an inkling of what the show was about. During intermission, the told me there were certain aspect of the show that they didn’t like. When I genuinely curiously asked for particulars, one simply replied that she was “Modestly Conservative”. At that point I looked at my friend and said not exactly in my inside voice, “perhaps they would have been better suited to have ventured across town that night, as our country’s VP was holding court at a nearby hotel filled with “modest conservatives”.”
Oh, and one other thing, apparently because of Tennessee State ever-so bible-belted laws concerning nudity and alcohol sales, any adult beverages purchased at TPAC must be consumed prior to entering the theatre. I kid you not. By the way, that ‘nudity’…about half a second at the close of Act 1 The Emcee drops trou as a big FU to Hitler’s pending actions.
That said, in case you hadn’t gathered by now, Cabaret is, on the surface, libidinous and coarse, but if you stick with it, you’ll see the underlying message of standing up to oppression and living your life being true to who you are, not what people project on you.
Thanks to the playwright, with a sobering visual punch courtesy the show’s costumer, William Ivy Long, there’s no moment more impactful than the show’s closing scene. I won’t completely spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but I’ll say this…No matter how many times I see this piece, I’m still somehow taken aback by the sheer brilliance of the once vibrant Emcee as he stands alone and seemingly defeated center-stage lit by a single spotlight and draped in clothing that invokes the very epitome of hate. Perhaps it’s our current political climate’s sadly shocking similarities to such a dark time in our world’s history, or for all I know, Kander, Ebb and Masteroff, as honored by Mendes, Marshall, McNicholl and company simply had the forethought to remind us all if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it.
That sobering ending should absolutely not deter audiences from witnessing a truly wonderful evening of live theater, for mixed amongst the seriousness of the subplot, the show is indeed chocked-full of blissfully wonderful musical theatre moments. As the song says…life is a cabaret ole chum, so come to the Cabaret.
Cabaret continues at TPAC’s Jackson Hall with performances Thursday, March 1 at 7:30 p.m., then switching to its weekend schedule with 8 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday, March 2 & 3, as well as a Saturday, March 3 matinee at 1:30 p.m., Sunday, March 4 matinee at 2:30 p.m. and a final Nashville presentation at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday evening. Tickets for Cabaret at TPAC range in price from $22 to $77. Earlier this week TPAC announced that RUSH tickets will be made available at at discounted price for every remaining performance. Simply show up at TPAC 90 minutes prior to showtime and inquire at the box office. CLICK HERE for tickets or more information. Not in Nashville, Mein freund? No worries…check out Cabaret on Tour on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see where they’re playing next.
Following Cabaret, TPAC continues the current season with Wicked March 28-April 22, Waitress June 5-10 and Love Never Dies: The Phantom Returns June 19-24. Click Here for tickets or more information. You can also follow TPAC on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
If you’ve enjoyed this review of Cabaret, check out my recent Rapid Fire 20 Q chat with the cast and be sure and subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Newsletter” tab at the top of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler. Interested in coverage of your performing arts events, be sure and drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.