Spectacle and Restraint Hold Equal Purchase in Cygnet’s Cabaret
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, Sept. 22, 2022
Prepare to be disarmed and subsequently dismantled if you have time to catch Cygnet Theatre’s powerful production of Cabaret. Running in its extension through October 2, this remount by director Sean Murray (who also helmed the 2011 staging of the same production) is exceptional and devastating in all of the right ways.
With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff, Cabaret is a show with a long history but, as when it first came to stage in 1966, it continues to be as a reminder of the past while remaining prescient of potential future ills. The musical’s storyline, which takes place on the brink of Nazi occupation, follows the developing relationship between headliner songstress Sally Bowles and American novelist Cliff Bradshaw. While they initially share a moment of passion in the Berlin nightclub where Sally performs, she soon shows up on his doorstep looking for something more. Also central to the story is the developing romance between boarding house proprietor Fräulein Schneider and her elderly suitor Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor.
Returning to the narrator role of Emcee is sparkling-eyed and confident Karson St. John, who ably leads an energetic and capable cast. Megan Carmitchel plays the effervescent and frivolous Sally Bowles in a way that showcases her unbelievable range. From moments of wild flirtation to vulnerability to unhinged desperation, Carmitchel’s Bowles is flawless. Her energy is well matched to Wil Bethmann as he portrays hopeful Cliff Bradshaw; Bethmann’s steadiness and easy humor make Cliff’s developing understanding of the “end of the world” that much more poignant.
Rounding out the leads are real-life partners Linda Libby and Eddie Yaroch as the mature Fräulein and Herr, where they serve beautifully as the emotional centers of the production. Yaroch’s beseeching eyes and rose-tinted spectacles approach to life have us firmly siding in his camp, dooming us to heartbreak when the fräulein breaks it off because he is a Jew. The circumstances surrounding this ill-fated couple had me reflecting on the Anti-Defamation's League's Pyramid of Hate and its escalating levels of attitude and behaviors as foreshadowing for more sinister violence. In that context, the naughty school boys startling the lovebirds on the street and the resounding anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" being led by Fräulein Kost are more directly a threat to the sanctity of the life that Schneider has built for herself. As the fairy tale of their near-marriage ends, Libby as Fräulein Schneider is brilliant in her rendition of "What Would You Do?". She is the manifestation of emotional devastation and defeat as she gives the beloved engagement gift one final look.
The other actors in this production are J.J. Abujasen, Alyssa Anne Austin, Marc Caro, Trevor Cruse, Anthony Donovan, Luke H. Jacobs, Jasmine January, Alyssa Junious, Carolyn Lupin, Tamara Rodriguez, Gerry Tonella, Allen Lucky Weaver, Erika Marie Weisz, Kalin Booker, and Kaleb Scott, each of them tackling their role with aplomb and skill. They are joined by a well-balanced orchestra, tight in the evening I attended despite having a sub as a Conductor/Keyboardist.
For this production, the Old Town Theatre space has been dressed in a copper facade which is alternately distressed and garnished with industrial bolts, dents, and metallic leafing. Opulent gold drapery, mixed media walls, and a tinsel curtain frame two stories with circular staircases at each side. The space is intimate and vertically steep and, as such, this design by Sean Fanning (and inspired by the original scenic design) works well to draw the audience into the show. The director's attention to detail in use of the space, in particular, is outstanding. I greatly appreciated the seamless scene change transitions, the tap/fight choreography, and the use of various levels, entrances/exits, and regions of the stage to keep the story moving while adding visual and aesthetic appeal along the way.
Most of all, I can imagine how easy it would be to lean into heavy visual imagery to indicate the shift in regime and the increasing pressures of the political sphere of Berlin. Nevertheless, director Sean Murray has given us something that, despite its brashness and hedonism on the outside, somehow manages to be restrained at the same time. Throughout the production, small elements (synchronized foot steps, dance that mimics soldiery, costume pieces...) begin to allude to the ever-darkening world outside but, within the Kit Kat Club, the Emcee and actors maintain an increasingly obvious charade of false joy. It is chilling to watch the cast, and especially the lead players, become closer and closer to cracking, their jovial frivolity juxtaposed with the insidiousness that we know exists just outside the nightclub walls. It is that restraint and subtlety that leaves us feeling bound and merciless at the hands of the evil that is coming. It is deeply disturbing in the most delicious way.
Cabaret runs Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and matinees on Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through October 2. Tickets: cygnettheatre.com.