note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Inspired by movement director Steven Mitchell Wright, this weird cadre, scantily garbed in leather and lingerie, slinks and slithers, sliding on bannisters and poles. Their white makeup with exaggerated black-encrusted eyes, is grotesque. They gather at the bar, sensuously stride among the crowd, tantalizingly touching people’s backs, while sending shivers up their spines.
Up high, in a back corner, music directors Lance Horne, Debra Barsha and Co. recreate the carnival, jazzy staccato of German cabarets and hofbraus.
Wandering from table to table, urging everyone to drink up and join in singing a drinking song, Max, owner of Berlin’s darkly-lit, bacchanal Kit Kat Club, (well played by Jeremy Geidt) cries “Willkommen”. In here, anything goes, and everyone’s friendly - too friendly.
The American Repertory Theater is kicking off its fall season at its other theater, Oberon, with John Kander and Fred Ebb’s timeless, multi-award-winning, dark musical, “Cabaret,” now through October 29, and this production is striking.
The action occurs everywhere in this cabaret-style setting - on stage, at the bar, in the balcony’s upper tiers and rafters, on railings, in the hallway, on the tables, and in the next seat. The surrealistic atmosphere of Berlin’s pre-World War II seamy scene seeps into every pore, every nerve, as transgendered, gay, transsexual, amoral characters appear ubiquitous.
Males wear garters, corsets, high heels. A young woman is dressed in a suit and tie, while others sport sexually explicit, oversized props. Early on, they toss a lei around, and the final catcher must reveal a truth or lie. Thus begins the decadent, communal slide into “Cabaret”.
Director Steven Bogart has broken down all barriers and convention here, especially with this cast. Setting the bar high, Bogart cast his former Lexington High School student, infamous cabaret performer-Dresden Doll, Amanda Palmer, as the Emcee, the role that catapulted Joel Grey and Alan Cumming to stardom.
Bogart also cast former ART resident star Thomas Derrah as female rooming house owner Fraulein Schneider, a stroke of sheer genius. Derrah steals most scenes, especially during his number, “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” performed with former ART co-resident actor, Remo Airaldi, as idealistic Jewish grocery store owner, Herr Schultz. Together, they emanate a romantic, middle-aged glow to the couple, whose marriage plans are doomed by the terrifying, rising tide of Nazism.
Derrah and Airaldi skillfully overshadow the also-doomed romance between amoral British singer, Sally Bowles, (Aly Trasher) and American inspiring writer Cliff Bradshaw (Matt Wood), whom fate has tossed together.
And handsome actor David Costa is powerful as villainous Nazi collaborator, Ernst Ludwig. When we first meet Ludwig traveling on the train, exchanging pleasantries with Bradshaw, Ludwig is affable, charming, camouflaging his mercenary dark side, which emerges full-blown later. Like a shotgun blast, he chillingly salutes Hitler and inspires youths to sing their anthemic call to arms, “The Future Belongs to Me”.
The most hideous, bone-numbing number is the Emcee’s anti-Semitic caricature, “If You Could See Her,” in which the Emcee’s fiancee is a woman with a pig’s face, slurping from a slop bucket, and wearing a giant yellow Jewish star.
David Israel Reynoso’s set, with rococo props and his sleazy costumes, is pervasively decadent; Nicholas Vargelis’ lighting, atmospherically invasive; as is Clive Goodwin’s surround sound design.
Life is a cabaret, old chum, and while life can be ugly, the girls are lovely, the costumes are lovely, the people are lovely, Max says, so come to the cabaret.
BOX INFO: Two-act, interactive musical, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by Joe Masteroff; directed by Steven Bogart, starring Amanda Palmer, at the American Repertory Theater’s Oberon, 2 Arrow St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. Not for under 16, unless accompanied by an adult, because of nudity, simulated sex and drug use. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 7:30,10:30 p.m. Shows begin promptly; Kit Kat Klub doors open half-hour before showtime. Tickets, $25-$45; student rush, $15; senior discount, $10 off regular price; group rates available. Call 617-547-8300 or visit www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org