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New Cabaret, Old Hell

The Hypocrites do a dark and ominous musical.



A nation gripped by economic instability and bitter partisanship, where extremists dominate the public discourse and demagogues denounce government power while strategizing to get it. America in 2010? Or Germany in 1930? Willkommen to Cabaret.

Adapted by playwright Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander, and lyricist Fred Ebb from Christopher Isherwood's semiautobiographical Berlin Stories, the landmark musical is set in Berlin just as the Nazis were evolving from a fringe movement into a mainstream political party. It juxtaposes the stories of two pairs of lovers: Aspiring American novelist Cliff Bradshaw stumbles across the sleazy Kit Kat Klub and its featured singer, Sally Bowles, who introduces him to a culture in which anything goes. Meanwhile, Cliff's middle-aged landlady, Fraulein Schneider, is wooed by a Jewish grocer who plies her with fresh fruit and schnapps. They plan to get married, but an eruption of anti-Semitic violence prompts the Fraulein to call off the wedding.

At the core of the work is the notion of two separate worlds: the real one and the one in the nightclub, where "even the orchestra is beautiful." Harold Prince's original 1966 production emphasized the distinction between them. But Brit director Sam Mendes's 1998 "revisal" (a revival and a revision) minimized it, turning the front rows of the theater into a nightclub with tables and chairs. Mendes also upped the shock quotient with raunchy choreography and a horrifying final image: the club's master of ceremonies hanging lifeless from an electric concentration-camp fence, dressed in a prison uniform.

The Hypocrites' new production, directed by Matt Hawkins, takes Mendes's interpretation a step further. Marianna Csaszar's black, bare-bones set, ingeniously lit by Heather Gilbert, consists of a small cabaret stage that juts out into the seating area. The performers move freely between the stage, the audience, and an industrial catwalk over the playing area. The distinction between nightclub and "real-life" episodes is erased. The Kit Kat Klub chorus of fleshy girls and beefy boys—led by a female master of ceremonies—is omnipresent, observing and often even participating in the action. When Herr Schultz woos Fraulein Schneider with the gift of a pineapple, for example, the chorus dances around the couple wearing Hawaiian grass skirts.

The most startling changes to the show involve the expansion of one secondary role—that of Ernst Ludwig, a Nazi who hires Cliff to smuggle cash across the German border—and the creation of an entirely new one. As played by Robert McLean, Ernst emerges here as an increasingly threatening and powerful figure who at one point shoots a Jew onstage. The new character is a young boy, played by Kyle Erkonen, who sings the show's Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." Hawkins's final image is of Ernst, his whore consort, and the boy, depicted as the ideal Aryan family.

This Cabaret plays less like a book musical than a sketch revue. Everything is a cabaret act, dramatic scenes and musical numbers alike. It's an inventive approach, but not entirely successful. The production fails to build a dramatic arc, and the fragmented narrative stunts the characters' emotional and psychological growth. Mike Pryzgoda's folkish, often clunky musical direction replaces some of Kander and Ebb's complex, Kurt Weill-inspired harmonies with simpler, blander chord changes.

Lindsay Leopold brings an intriguingly dark, almost nihilistic energy to Sally. More than any other I've seen, this Sally has a past—and whatever it consisted of, it wasn't pleasant. Sung just before she aborts Cliff's child and sends him back to America alone, Leopold's bravura rendition of the show's title song suggests that Sally is embracing the Holocaust to come, simply because she is tired of living.

This is a Cabaret built on strong, inventive, but sometimes heavy-handed choices. They don't always succeed, but they certainly fulfill the intentions of the work's creators, offering a cautionary reminder that what happened in 1930s Germany could easily recur.   

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