Director Larry Carpenter cultivates new twists on the classic musical.
Cabaret has undergone much alteration from Harold Prince's original 1966 Broadway production. In 1972, wunderkind Bob Fosse revamped the story line for the film version, commissioning the composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb to write new songs, such as "Mein Herr," "Money," and the pair's trunk song "Maybe This Time." In the late '90s, director Sam Mendes incorporated the movie songs into the established show and turned up the sexual heat to form an even more adult version than the film.
This amalgamation, which transferred to Broadway in 1998, where it was a hit, has become the established version. Now, director Larry Carpenter has altered Cabaret further for La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' production, tearing away the walls of musical convention with strong directorial choices that make the audience constantly aware that the characters are being watched for entertainment.
The story starts off the same: In early '30s Germany, a seedy nightclub mirrors the chaos and fascism rising in Europe. The club Emcee (Jeff Skowron) welcomes audiences to the ribald world of the Kit Kat Club, where lust pervades and an underlying hatred for anyone different is becoming the norm. The employees and guests, who stretch the hetero-normal mentality, mock the winds of war, completely naive about the fact that though Jews are becoming the victims of the day, Hitler and his mob will be coming back for anyone else they deem unacceptable. Also ignorant to the hostility around her, British singer Sally Bowles (Zarah Mahler) breezes through her life as if politics could never harm her. Her bisexual lover Cliff (Christian Pedersen) recognizes that hell is about to break loose and that those he loves will be a few of the many casualties.
Kander and Ebb's score remains as potent as when it arrived 50-some years back. Songs like "Don't Tell Mama," "Two Ladies," and the title number illustrate the decadence and freedom of the Weimar period, while "If You Could See Her" and "Money" hint at the eventual collapse. The militaristic "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is a smack in the face of human decency that Nazism would spend years and many lives trying to snuff out.
The book by Joe Masteroff distinctly separates the outside world of Sally, Cliff, and their compatriots from the satire on the Kit Kat Club's stage. The libretto features a secondary couple to complement Sally and Cliff: Landlady Fraulein Schneider (Kelly Lester) and her Jewish boyfriend Herr Schultz (Jack Laufer), who offer a grounding presence and secondary love story. The pair breaks out into song during conversation, following the trend toward fantasy that musicals held during the Golden Age.
At La Mirada, director Carpenter turns those traditional conventions inside out. Kit Kat Club dancers observe the book scenes and often interact with the characters outside the club. When Schneider and Schultz sing "It Couldn't Please Me More," the Kit Kat Girls enter the boarding house and dance in pineapple costumes. Carpenter has turned the book scenes into cabaret numbers as if the audience at the Club can observe the doings at the boarding house and comment on it. No longer have the two worlds been separated. They have crashed into each other in dazzling effect. Carpenter scrims off much of the large La Mirada stage so that the set appears to be shrinking. The walls visually appear to be crashing down on the characters.
Not all of Carpenter's changes have enhanced the production. He has defanged the mysterious Emcee of his menace. Carpenter dresses the Emcee up in tight leather and a ruff so he resembles a fool, not a devil. Skowron enacts the Emcee with earnestness, not luridness, which feels like an odd choice. Carpenter also has the first "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sung by a child mannequin that the Emcee redresses as Hitler, which robs the Act 1 finale of its bite.
Though the character choices are controversial, Skowron continues his flair for professionalism with a sparkling voice. His "I Don't Care Much" is a harrowing torch song. Mahler brings self-awareness to Sally, particularly when singing the title song under duress. Her Sally knows her world is crumbing, and she purposely puts on blinders. Mahler sings her songs with gusto while making it clear to the audience that Sally, the character, is talentless. Laufer and Lester are tragically beautiful as the doomed interfaith couple. Pedersen, sadly, is flat as the author, Cliff, bringing no tension or chemistry to his scenes.
Dana Solimando's choreography is appropriately lurid, sensualizing the dancers while not making them appear too skilled. These Kit Kat Girls could have been found in the gutter desperate for their last meal only a day previously. Steven Young's lighting traps the characters in cages. He frames Skowron in "I Don't Care Much" as if the character were sinking in a trash compactor. John Iacovelli's German-expressionistic sets with their askew lines give the show an appropriate paranoiac overtone.
A noble reconfiguring of an often-performed musical, director Carpenter visually skewers the play's style, but ultimately, in an age where history seems to be repeating itself, his version has ironically lost its sense of urgency.