The Rep’s “Cabaret,” a blockbuster with guts
Friday night, a dazzling theatrical juggernaut with moral force to match its glitz opened Mark Clements’ tenure as artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
Kander and Ebb’s 1964 Cabaret looked and felt spanking new in a production remarkable for its cinematic fluidity and seamless integration of theatrical effects, pointed acting, narrative, dance and music. (The canny set and costume designs by Todd Edward Ivins and Jeff Nellis’ gorgeous lighting help a lot.)
A fearless cast of 33 took on the smarmy sensuality of Berlin between the wars with fierce abandon. The wantonness of the sex and wildness of the German version of the Jazz Age looked like a hell of a lot of fun at first, as an island of joyous excess in a chaotic world. But as the show went on and the world outside the Kit Kat Klub imploded, the excess turned ever more grotesque. The Klub came to look more and more like an ever-shrinking coffin.
The moral centers of the tale are Geoffrey Hemingway as Clifford Bradshaw, a young American novelist uncertain of his sexual orientation and in search of inspiration; Kelley Faulkner as Sally Bowles, naughty British expat and Kit Kat singing star; Linda Stephens, as Fraülein Schneider, their resigned but decent landlady; and Jonathan Gillard Daly as the kind, elderly Jewish shopowner who would marry Schneider. They play their intimate scenes together in a lovely natural way, even when the action and conversation carry them into song or into little couples’ dances. Their chemistry and beautifully matched scale and style give the show moral weight because the characters feel like real people.
Of course Clements, as director, had a great deal to do with that. But Clements’ profound accomplishment lies in the way the show flows from those very real human moments into the surreal world of the club, where everyone is in costume, everyone plays a role and no one is quite real. Faulkner’s Sally buys into the idea that “life is a Cabaret, old chum,” and lives that life outside the club, in a whirl of parties, drinking, sex, pills and abortions. Hemingway’s Bradshaw pulls her toward reality, and she quivers suspended for a time. Clements’ production clearly puts Sally’s soul in the balance. During a gripping rendition of the title song late in the show, Faulkner makes Sally tilt toward hell. The moment is devastating.
Her personal damnation stands as a macrocosm of a society on the tipping point. She descends before a cheering audience of Nazis as Germany descends into its national madness.
Lee E. Ernst plays the Klub’s master of ceremonies and, in a larger sense, is Cabaret‘s ringmaster. He pops up unexpectedly amid the intimate scenes and guides the transitions back to the shows within the shows. You could call him the devil, but that wouldn’t be quite right. His emcee is not so much actively evil as morally indifferent, supremely cynical and decadently sensual. He tells you so, in the lazily sung, chilling I Don’t Much Care (added in the 1998 revival).
Ernst is the supreme wonder in a cast of wonders. The man moves like a panther, except when he needs to be a serpent. He minces about or takes on macho presence, in an amplified version of the outsized gender roles routine among all the entertainers at the club. And even when he’s playing languid, Ernst emits a tireless and electrifying energy.
And what an orchestra. Quite a few of the musicians have active roles in the show. I can’t imagine where Clements found women who look great in garters and stockings and can play, say, the euphonium or the bass saxophone very well, but he did.
I also can’t imagine how Clements orchestrated this vast and enormously complicated production and paced it down to the sixteenth-note. Even on opening night, Cabaret ran as if Swiss jewelers had made it. Cabaret is a smashing debut for the Rep’s new AD.
Cabaret — the first musical ever played on the Rep’s Powerhouse stage — runs through Oct. 24. Tickets are $15-$65. Click here to order, or call the Rep’s box office, 414-224-9490.