note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Special to Theater Mirror
The Metro Stage Company’s “Cabaret,” now at the Cambridge YMCA, is a dark and poignant version of the Kander and Ebb musical about hedonism in Berlin and the rise of Nazism.
The current production, directed by James Tallach with choreography by Linda Sughrue and musical direction by Juri Panda Jones, has got decadence nailed. But although the Metro Stage’s Kit Kat entertainers and their sexy straining at pleasure may blunt the club clientele’s desperation, it is less effective conveying the carefree fun necessary for a true escape. It would be hard for any “Cabaret” production to balance all the elements of the unusually complex plot, however, and the sad, serious messages are probably more important to get right. Metro Stage Company gets them right.
In the first number, the inestimable Michael Letch, putting his own stamp on the Emcee role created by Joel Grey, leads a lascivious chorus of men and women wearing mainly bras, panties, and garter belts in the multilingual “Wilkommen.” As he welcomes playgoers, many of whom sit cabaret-style at round tables below the thrust stage, he promises that the Kit Kat Klub’s entertainers will make them forget their cares. (In this scene and others, Letch demonstrates his flair for over-the-top raunchiness, but it is worth noting the pathos of his makeup-less solo in Act II, “I Don’t Care Much,” which was especially memorable.)
As Berlin night crawlers churn to the last gasps of the Weimar Republic, a young innocent arrives by train. Clifford Bradshaw (the golden-voiced Robert Case) comes with high hopes that the city will stoke his efforts to write a novel. On the train he meets in Ernst Ludwig (Adam Riccio), whose insistent friendliness keeps the young American from wondering why the German would hide a bag from customs agents. By the time he learns that Ernst smuggles money to the Nazis, it is too late.
The harmless-seeming Ernst pushes Cliff to rent a room in the home of Fraulein Schneider (tenderly portrayed by Mary O’Donnell) and introduces him to the Kit Kat Klub, where he is smitten by the charms of Sally Bowles. Tracy Nygard portrays a more mature Bowles than the cinematic chanteuse on whom a young Liza Minnelli carved her initials. Nygard’s “Don’t Tell Mama” is suitably frothy, but her “Maybe This Time” is nicely grounded and pensive. Toward the end of evening, when she sings the song “Cabaret,” it’s with a complicated blend of devil-may-care and heartbreak: no hope for Sally, no hope for Berlin, no hope.
The show features numerous bright spots that turn tragic, and among the brightest is the grownup romance of Fraulein Schneider and the Jewish grocer, Herr Shultz (Harry Rothman). The couple provides an oasis of sweetness, normalcy and humor amid Berlin’s roiling craziness. But Schneider’s wistful Act I song about learning “to settle for what you get,” is all too prescient. When her engagement party turns to Nazi ashes, playgoers realize why “Cabaret” once stunned audiences. The world of musical comedy had embraced tragedy. The lighthearted Schneider-Shultz courtship, which begins with a gift of pineapple, culminates in Schultz’s branding with a yellow Star of David. Abandoning his former giddy tone, Rothman assumes a gentle and dignified demeanor. His Shultz will protect Schneider by going away, but he will continue to believe that people are essentially good at heart.
Among the large, effervescent cast, Meredith Stypinski is effective as Fraulein Kost, comfort of sailors. Stypinski’s character merges the apolitical and political Berlin--with her reckless solution to poverty and her belief that only Jews keep her country from greatness. She is the one at the engagement party who strikes up the Master Race anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
The sets designed by Waker von Berg are necessarily simple and adaptive, given the limited time for rehearsals at the YMCA, but they include the Kit Kat Klub, a train compartment, Schneider’s living room, and Cliff and Sally’s bedroom. The crew is able to flip from one scene to another without loss of pacing. The final set packs a wallop, and no reviewer should give it away.
Christopher Teague is the show’s producer, Erika Gustafson is stage manager, and John MacKenzie designed the lighting. Kimmerie H.O. Jones is behind the impressive variety of costumes.
On opening night, the show got off to a late start with a speech by assistant artistic director Michelle M. Williams, which was drowned out by electric fans. The fans, in fact, made all low-voiced dialogue in the show hard to hear, but were probably needed on the warm night.
“Cabaret” runs through Sept. 15 at the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre, 820 Mass. Ave., Central Square, Cambridge. For more information, go to www.metrostagecompany.com or call (617) 524-5013.