Blown up like a monstrous bouquet of broken shards, a mirror looms above and behind the Barrington Stage Company’s spin on the Kit Kat Club. The band is seated before the jagged shapes, elegant cursive K’s on their bandstand in front of them. The slices warp and bend the dancers’ bodies, the victims, these reflections scarier than your average fun house mirror. Are these shattered mirrors bending John Kander and Fred Ebb’s iconic and frequently staged musical Cabaret, too?
In one moment, three gender expansive performers (including James Rose’s winding- river-haired Emcee) sit before imaginary looking glasses as if in a dressing room. They face the audience and begin to sing, “The sun on the meadow is summery warm, the stag in the first runs free…” Their backs are demented by scenic designer Wilson Chin’s glass behind them.
For the uninformed, these are the opening lyrics to “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, the show’s fictional Nazi anthem, written with such verisimilitude that punk/neo-Nazi band Skrewdriver covered it unironically in 1979. Thus, it’s bold, perhaps even dangerous to mix provocation with progressive politics. Or perhaps reckless. The three, one of them Black ensemble member Charles Mayhew Miller, clasp hands together, as if they sang a garden variety “I want” number. They stop just before the lyrics take a turn into genuflecting to the “Fatherland”.
To its credit, that director Alan Paul found a sprinkling left of new kinds of goading to be had from Cabaret is to be acknowledged. It’s hard to follow Sam Mendes’ final act decision to throw the Emcee into the camps with a pink triangle and yellow star in the 1993 West End revival; or Bob Fosse’s choice to pan slowly across the melted reflection of the new brownshirted audience on the Kit Kat Club’s wall in the 1972 film; or even the original 1966 Hal Prince production’s choice to hang a mirror above the audience.
If Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and his time in Weimar era Berlin and its crushing by the Nazis, is anything, it’s consistent. Adapters love finding some way to use Isherwood’s source text as a tool to indict its audience. But, the further an audience gets away from the show’s original late-1960s/early-1970s context and shock value, the more difficult it becomes to make Cabaret say something new. Placing the audience literally in the Kit Kat Club, replete with wait staff donning smeared makeup and tattered pantyhose? Done it. Set it in a rave space? The Deep End did it.
Additionally, the more entrenched the United States becomes in fascism, the closer to Cabaret’s world and ours resemble one another, making its production not so much commentary not so much dated as on the nose.
To rework part of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in this way is to ask questions not only of who was targeted by the Nazis and how they’re represented in pop culture, but to also require a level of rigor when this notion of representation and progressive politics must also extend to a creative/craft level. It absolutely makes sense that the Kit Kat Club, a facsimile of real seedy dumps populated by boys with bleached hairs and other kinds of queers and people of color, should be reflective of those spaces. But theater budgets are tight these days. The Deep End’s 2019 production’s Brooklyn nightlife cast (comprising drag queens, and queer and trans people of color) nosedived this challenge by having all of those same people of marginalized identity perform the song’s reprise. It wasn’t a good look.
Alan Paul’s production has not presented less a cure to this dramaturgical ailment and more like the theatrical equivalent of methadone: it’ll do in the meantime. Even if the aforementioned rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” seems squicky and naive, it is at least harmonized with eloquence. And, anyways, the reprise at Fräulein Schneider (a matter of fact Candy Buckley) and Herr Schultz’s (an understated, but sensitive Richard Kline) engagement party strategically only implicates the white cast members. (Interestingly, one member of the threesome, the genderqueer Victor, played by nonbinary actor Ryland Marbutt, does join the Sieg Heils, returning in the second act with their formerly free flowing hair tied in a bun and sporting a red arm band.)
For the most part, Paul’s production is an adequate way to see Kander and Ebb’s music performed well, particularly by a band than leans into the score’s jazzier flavors, here musically directed by Angela Steiner. And Krysta Rodriguez (who, ironically, played Liza with a Z on Ryan Murphy’s staid Halston show on Netflix) has a remarkable control over gesture, making her Sally Bowles tragic not because of naivete or mediocrity, but because she could be a star but chooses the Devil instead. Even if Rodriguez’s voice is of such volume that she is occasionally drowned out by the ensemble, her sense of embodiment, spinning Sally as someone driven simply by desire at any cost, is fairly striking. In musical numbers, she attacks Katie Spelman’s overtly Fosse-indebted choreography with a combination of feverish aptitude and nonchalance. She narrows her eyes, thrusts her pelvis, rolls her eyes, lounges back, and hangs her shoulders coquettishly like someone who’s used to getting wants.
But you can’t always get what you want. Paul’s production more broadly is a little too glitzy for its own good, never really destabilizing the audience, especially one familiar with the material. The proscenium is bordered by more Art Deco-ish decor, the frame containing jutting lines and looking like something out of Babylon Berlin. More than once disco balls are employed. Rodrigo Muñoz’s costumes are glittering, lacy, and sequined, giving everyone a kind of shiny, sexy doll energy.
It feels bizarre to realize that is what Cabaret has basically turned into. A scintillating plaything for directors unable or unwilling to really go there with the show. Paul and Spelman can combine a direct sexuality in its movements and Fosse’s more stringent in their shape restrained eroticism, but taut shoulders and hooked wrists feel more like an action figure’s pre-engineered articulation point than a new way to play.
If Cabaret was intended as the post-Vietnam War era’s demand for the country to look at itself, the Barrington Stage Company’s production is, at best, like the three disco balls hanging from its ceiling: not much to look into, but at least it’s pretty.