Review: A Uniquely Sinister Cabaret at the Old Globe in San Diego

Director/choreographer Josh Rhodes reinvents the Kander and Ebb classic in this new production.

The cast of Cabaret, directed by Josh Rhodes, at the Old Globe.
(© Jim Cox)

The Sam Mendes/Rob Marshall Cabaret  that started in London and moved to Broadway has pretty much become the standard production of this John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff classic. Though director/choreographer Josh Rhodes uses a similar framework for his production at the Old Globe in San Diego, his ingenuity takes the production in directions that are revolutionary.

The musical follows the blossoming romances between Kit Kat Klub singer Sally Bowles (Joanna A. Jones) and naïve American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Alan Chandler), as well as German landlord Fräulein Schneider (Kelly Lester) and the kindly, Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz (Bruce Sabath). Interrupting the romance is the androgenous Emcee (Lincoln Clauss), who manages to represent the salacious Weimer period, the cruelty of the Nazis, and a victim of this narcissistic future war. The score continues to intermingle the original Broadway songs like “Two Ladies,” “Willkommen,” and “Married” with those made famous in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film: “Maybe This Time,” “Money,” and “Mein Herr.”

Where Rhodes transforms the already powerful Cabaret  is in its masterful staging, which deals in dichotomies. He has Sally sing the desperate “Maybe This Time,” as a spotlight grows on the floor beside her — she jumps on that lit circle like a fly to lightbulbs, craving the fame that beam represents. She may be singing of love for man, but Rhodes and Jones make Sally’s addiction clear. She punctuates it by bowing to the applause of a phantom audience after the number. Cliff never stands a chance.

Joanna A. Jones (center in white) plays Sally Bowles in Cabaret at the Old Globe.
(© Jim Cox)

The director utilizes vaudeville routines to make audience’s laugh at numbers that Cabaret enthusiasts know will come back to bite them. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” an unregistered warning sign of the monstrosity ahead, is sung by a ventriloquist dummy who, to the Emcee’s horror, moves on its own at the end. “I Don’t Care Much” involves magical stagecraft as a headless man holds a balloon of the Emcee’s head. The Emcee sings as his head floats up and down, just as the German people looked the other way as their neighbors were beaten and sent to camps. He also changes the Emcee’s primate dance partner in “If You Could See Her” to something revoltingly unkosher so that the final line really stings.

Similarly, Rhodes skillfully integrates the cabaret scenes with the book scenes by having cast members bring out sets mid-performance, so that the audience has no time to breathe between a sardonic number and a more traditional scenario. He also envelops both worlds in the “Money” number: The Emcee and Kit Kat Dancers perform the number as the audience observes Cliff smuggling items unknown to him out of Paris. Though the song always has alluded to Cliff and Sally’s hunger for cash, this production spells it out cleverly and doesn’t appear didactic.

Lincoln Clauss plays the Emcee in the Old Globe’s production of Cabaret, directed by Josh Rhodes.
(© Jim Cox)

Jones is dynamic in her numbers. She reclines on a huge shimmering moon in “Mein Herr,” embodying Marlene Dietrich. In the title song, she lets loose and flushes all her delusions down the drain. However, her scenes with Chandler miss the tension of the Kit Kat Klub. Cliff is often a thankless role, and Chandler can’t seem to spring himself from the shackles of Masteroff’s dialogue. On the other hand, Lester and Sabath have wonderful chemistry as the elder lovers and their scenes are tender. Clauss captivates as the enigmatic Emcee, finding his own rhythm in a role heretofore defined by Joel Grey and Alan Cumming. There are a lot of metaphors loaded on this character’s shoulders, and Clauss manages to convey much in just a tilt of the head.

Rhodes choreography fills the show so that every glance feels imaginatively engineered. His dancers are talented and project a level of sleaze, lurking in the shadows, spying on their neighbors. Tijana Bjelajac’s decadent set engulfs the stage in black and gold art deco. Alejo Vietti’s glittering jackets, pants, and flapper dresses fit into the club’s licentious allure. The orchestra, though small in size, brings heft to the numbers and fills the theater with Kander and Ebb’s beguiling music.

This reinvention of Cabaret takes small detours from what’s been seen before, but those roads are impactful. The director saves his final genius move for last. While it’s not new to end the show with the Emcee in concentration camp, Rhodes uses a simple technique of lifting a scrim to show the coats of countless victims who have lost their belongings for the dehumanizing striped pajamas. Audience members noticeably cried due to this harrowing final gut punch. From opening number to gripping finale, this is a uniquely sinister Cabaret.

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Final performance: October 8, 2023