The more things change, the more they stay the same. Take the pre-World War II world of “Cabaret,” now at the Music Circus, for example. It was a time when people ate, drank and made merry, but a dark undertone of something scary was about to shatter their world.
Now consider today. We entertain ourselves with television, movies and Pokémon Go; we savor the latest culinary crazes and craft beers; and we party like it’s . . . 1931! We, as they were, are drowning ourselves in self-indulgence, ignoring dark clouds of hate on the horizon. Yes, this is political — more immediately political now than when the musical drama first appeared in 1966. By then Hitler’s threat had been defeated. Today, you-know-who’s seems to be ascendant.
Kander and Ebb (John Kander wrote the music; Fred Ebb did the lyrics); and Joe Masteroff provided the book. They couldn’t have foreseen such similarities to today: Jews vs. Muslims, Jews vs. Mexicans, fatherland vs. homeland, ghetto walls vs. a border wall. Masteroff based the book on John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I Am a Camera,” which itself was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories.”
Whatever the initial impetus for this tale — now a cautionary one –about the evils of hate and bigotry , there was an obvious intent to embrace the mantra, “Never Again.” The play that has had several incarnations on Broadway and in national tours and that turns up regularly in professional and community theaters helps us to: Never Forget. With excellent songs and a plot that begins and ends in the same place — but in a very different atmosphere — “Cabaret” is one of the world’s great musicals. Practically anybody in any country can identify with the song “Money.” Money makes the world go round. Indeed.
The play opens with the Emcee (Robin de Jesus) at the infamous Kit Kat Klub, inviting us to come inside, forget out troubles and be ourselves — if just for the evening. Everything is beautiful inside the cabaret, he says. The exciting opening number, “Willkommen,” entices us with the promise of sensuality, sexuality, ambiguity and an “adult” good time. “The girls are pretty, the boys are pretty, even the band is pretty,” he promises.
A young American novelist, Clifford Bradshaw (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), meets German businessman Ernst Ludwig (Shannon Stoeke) on a train about to arrive in Berlin. Ludwig immediately becomes Cliff’s BFFN (best friend for now) and guides him to a place to stay, and to the Kit Kat Klub. It’s at the club that Cliff encounters a reminder of an unsavory event from his past, and where he meets singer Sally Bowles (Kaleigh Cronin), a shall-we-say loose, ambitious young woman from England whose mother thinks she’s studying at a convent in France: “Don’t Tell Mama.”
As Cliff tries to find inspiration for his novel, life goes on, sometimes happily, sometimes not. He reads the book “Mein Kampf” and begins to see a future that is not at all as bright as that painted in the cabaret. When he hears the lovely sounding “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” he senses an ugliness beneath it. And when he learns that his landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray), plans to marry Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz (Ron Wisniski), Cliff urges the couple to flee Germany, as he intends to do. Herr Schultz, insisting he’s as German as anyone, can’t believe his government would do what it’s becoming apparent it is doing under Hitler. On the train leaving Berlin alone, Cliff finally finds his inspiration.
De Jesus, Cronin and Herdlicka are Music Circus newcomers, but each has Broadway experience, and each is outstanding. De Jesus particularly shines in the play’s most demanding role. Cronin makes Sally Bowles more sympathetic than you’d think a lost, alcoholic club rat could be, while Herdlicka, as surrogate for writer Isherwood, has an underwritten role, but he’s committed to it. The tragic couple Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Murray and Wisniski) are not only likable, but believable as two “mature” adults whose marriage would really amount to a comfortable companionship (with maybe a pineapple once in awhile). Sadly, events overtake both the good and the bad. And as despicable and duplicitous as some characters are, it’s still hard to celebrate their getting the end they deserve
Glenn Casale directs and Bob Richard choreographs for a large and talented ensemble of singers and dancers. Casale also makes good use of the multi-level rotating stage.
“Cabaret” continues through Sunday at the Music Circus, 1419 H St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. nightly through Saturday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (final performance). Tickets are $45-$93, depending on performance and seat location, and are available by phone at (916) 557-1999, online at californiamusicaltheatre.com or in person at the Box Office.
Featured photo by Charr Crail