Curtain Calls: ‘Cabaret’ – Wilkommen to ‘Glitter and Doom’

If you go

What: â??Cabaretâ?
Where: Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Va.
Call: (703) 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org
Playing through June 28

If any theatre can pull off the hypnotic decadence of Weimar Berlinâ??s nightspots on the brink of Nazi domination, it is Signature. Come evening, the darkly intimate MAX space becomes the Kit Kat Klub complete with round tops, café lights, rotary telephones, and a bar serving the patrons. Director Matthew Gardiner â??gets it.â? The only way to present Kander and Ebbâ??s Tony winning masterpiece is full bore and fearless â?? or not at all.

With mood and characters that even outshine the plot, â??Cabaretâ? has a long and respectable parentage. Its nearly half century musical triumph was born of John Van Drutenâ??s Broadway hit â??I Am A Camera,â? itself an inspiration of Christopher Isherwoodâ??s book â??Berlin Stories.â? A movie came along, of course â?? an entertaining but much sanitized vehicle for Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. Four revivals and multiple Tonys followed.

What appears on the MAX stage now is meticulously designed – the very zeitgeist of frantically oblivious German night crawlers in the early 1930s. It presents one long Mardi Gras of excesses and depravity, for even the most shameless Sodomite had to know on some level that the end of the party would be ashes.

In case Iâ??m being too subtle, be prepared for plenty of cleavage and thong underwear, leather pants, suspenders and bare chests, not to mention dance eroticism â?? both hetero and homo. Well? What do you expect from the Kit Kat Klub, that dark recess of the underground â??where life is always beautifulâ??

Representing the very face of this debauchery, welcoming us in and setting the tone thereafter is the Emcee. Wesley Taylor, with his athletically slithery movements, is the center around which the frenzied nightlife erupts. Inviting and menacing, seductive and repellent, he is the ringmaster of a risqué circus and holds the audience enthrall like a cobra with a cage full of mice.

Even in one of my favorite numbers, the playful â??Two Ladies,â? what I will call his â??radiant darknessâ?? takes center stage. This element is ramped up further in â??If You Could See Her,â? an initially funny-sweet routine that ends with a reminder of â??the Jewish Problemâ? that lands like a blow to the head.

A spirited chorus barely clad in Frank Labovitzâ??s costumes strut their considerable stuff to the sharp-edged choreography of director Gardiner. Nothing, however, sums up that fearful time like â??The Money Song,â? a bacchanalian number reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch fever dream.

Into this world stumbles the American writer, Clifford Bradshaw, looking for a cheap room and the opportunity to take notes for his future Berlin stories. Gregory Woodell has a faint Robert Redford appeal as the infinitely decent Cliff, a man with a few secrets of his own but a moral compass that points to the writing on the wall.

Two disappointed love stories will emerge, one of them his own with the lovely, frantic, utterly irresponsible Sally Bowles (Barrett Weed). One canâ??t help but notice Ms. Weedâ??s resemblance to the early Liza Minnelli, but the spectacular voice is her own. Kicky in the show-stopping â??Mein Heir,â? charmingly naughty in â??Donâ??t Tell Mama,â? hopeful and private in â??Maybe This Time,â? she delivers a brave but heartbreaking slant to the final rendition of â??Cabaretâ? (â??Life is a cabaret, old chumâ?¦â?)

Like two flies caught in a steel net, the landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Naomi Jacobson) and her Jewish, fruit-selling friend, Herr Schultz (Rick Foucheux) are equally doomed. Herr Schultz reminds us of the monstrous tragedy about to unfold; as a loyal German, he cannot believe that other Germans would turn on him. Mr. Foucheux perfectly portrays this concept, being simple and unheroic, a modest man surviving on denial in the face of gathering evil.

Others find denial too tiresome, capitulation too easy. Fraulein Kost (Maria Rizzo) makes her living â??entertainingâ? sailors in Fraulein Schneiderâ??s boarding house. Defiance is her default setting. And Ernst (Bobby Smith), a likeable German who makes Cliff feel at home, sheds his ambivalence about the coming storm when he begins wearing a swastika.

Perhaps the most chilling piece of ensemble work is the chorally sung â??Tomorrow Belongs to Me,â? a stirring anthem with threads of optimism until its reprisal by the same men, now representing the Third Reich.
Misha Kachmanâ??s scene design with its revolving stage and glittering tinsel along with Jason Lyonsâ?? hard lighting and deep shadows set the stage for the last days of the cabaret in Berlin. Itâ??s a torch re-lit, an artistic coup de grace that works on every level. Come to the â??Cabaretâ?, old chum. But leave the kids at home.

Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher. You may reach her at maggiecatbird@aol.com