Sometimes a play hits you with a sledgehammer that is so personal, it feels like it arose somehow from your own DNA. Such is the case with Cabaret, which is now receiving a raucously entertaining and profoundly powerful performance at Blank Canvas Theater.
It feels intensely personal for this reviewer because Christopher Isherwood wrote the source material for the show, The Berlin Stories, in 1945, the year I was born. And the musical Cabaret, with the memorable songs by John Kander (lyrics) and Fred Ebb (music) and book by Joe Masteroff, opened in 1966. That was when many of us in college were protesting the Vietnam War, a year bookended by the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
In short, it was a time of political upheaval with more than a few touches of impending chaos, disturbingly similar to Berlin in the 1930s when Cabaret takes place. And now, 50 years later, here we are in another time when fear is stalking many groups of citizens in this country, thanks to the reckless threats and free-floating hate stoked by our president-elect.
In short, this production of Cabaret couldn't come at a better time, even though it is hardly the kind of holiday fare that most of us tend to prefer. But difficult times call for courageous artists to rise to the challenge, and director Patrick Ciamacco has crafted a version of this classic show that will live in your memory for quite some time.
From the moment the dissipated and androgynous emcee of the Kit Kat Klub takes the stage with his bevy of decadent dancers, we are plugged into the moment when fascism is on the rise in Germany and most people are ignorant of the fact or trying not to pay attention. As aging Fraulein Schneider sings in an early song, "So who cares? So what?" It's an ode to taking what comes and settling for whatever happens.
What's happening is a fearsome transformation of a government from one that protected individual freedoms to one that is eager to prey on its most vulnerable citizens. And if you can't tell if I'm talking about Germany in the 1930s or America right now, that is some indication why this show feels fresh and frightening.
Backed by a talented eight-piece band conducted by Matthew Dolan, the excellent BCT cast finds multiple ways to coax meaning and emotion out of this superb material. The quiet center of the musical is anchored by Frau Schneider, played and sung with passion by Bernadette Hisey, and Herr Schultz, who is given a sweet rendering by John J. Polk. The late-in-life romance between this German woman and her Jewish lover is tender and loving until, faced with the realities of the persecution of the Jews, Frau Schneider backs out of their planned wedding. And in this telling, that decision feels genuinely heartbreaking.
The central relationship is between the American tourist Clifford Bradshaw (a nicely underplaying Noah Hrbek) and the star floozy of the Kit Kat Klub, Sally Bowles. Unlike earlier versions of the show, Bradshaw's gay tendencies are not soft-pedaled, and this casts his connection with the troubled Sally in a different and more intriguing light. He is understandably afraid to come out and be himself in the permissive but tottering last vestiges of the Weimar Republic.
Tricia Bestic turns in a believable and at times electric performance as Sally, a young woman who pursues her doomed romance with Cliff, and her equally doomed career at the Klub, with a feisty sense of fatalism. And Bestic nails the title song late in the second act, bringing new meaning to many of the lines referring to her old pal Elsie, the "happiest corpse" she ever saw.
In the spotlight role of the emcee, Devon Turchan is priceless. Without overplaying the slimy salaciousness of his character, he commands the stage and mixes coy vulnerability with a steely control of his tacky little universe. His is a performance that demands to be seen and relished for all its nuances, as well as its balls-to-the-wall brazenness.
The Kit Kat Girls and Boys all contribute by being very specific with their gestures and looks, even as they merge into a cohesive entity. In supporting roles, Stuart Hoffman is an icy German businessman turned Nazi supporter, and Kimberly Eskut steams up the stage as a whore who shuffles through sailors.
Ultimately, this production earns its battle ribbon by not backing away from the horror that resulted from all that hate. For instance, Ciamacco has the courage to keep the Jewish reference at the end of the comic song "If You Could See Her," a reference that lands the punchline like a punch to the gut.
Plus, the ending is as raw as it gets. It's not manipulation, it's a fact. And now, when we're apparently living in a "post-fact" world, that's important to see.