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BWW Review: Life is a CABARET at Split Stage

BWW Review: Life is a CABARET at Split Stage

Cabaret is a rarity among musicals, making a major impact for itself in not one, but three distinct and separate forms. First there was the glitzy, ironic 1960s production starring Joel Gray as a winking, smirking Emcee; Then, the famous Fosse film with Gray and Liza Minnelli, drawing only characters and songs from the stage show; Most recently, the reimagined, "uncensored" British-American production which restored material cut for time and content from the original stage version. With dynamic star performances from Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson, this Cabaret was often referred to as "the good version," "the sexy version" or "the cool version" among theater fans. Only recently has Tams-Witmark begun licensing this seedier, darker version of the show (despite years of productions of the "traditional" version drawing unofficial inspiration from it), and Split Stage is the first company in the area to present the 1998 version of Cabaret . And what a time to be doing it. Directors Rob Jessup and Nate Newell have picked the best (or worst) possible political moment to stage one of the most political musicals ever written.

Regardless of textual variation, any given production of this show will leave you with a different impression of who the main character was. Perhaps it was the strength of their performances, or the dangerous political era in which the show is set (and produced), but for the first time I found myself viewing the older couple as the main characters and not the B-plot. Linda Stayer sinks her teeth into the role of Fraulein Schneider, which (Sondheim be damned) is likely the greatest role ever written for women of certain age. Her lover, Herr Schultz, Ron Ferrara brings both the kindness and loving nature of prerequisite and genuine sexuality to the character. These two are lovers, not just sweethearts.

It would be impossible to talk about Sally in this production without discussing Mandie Russak as the Emcee. Who and what the Emcee is from production to production. Joel Gray's Emcee was the sneering face of German complacency, Alan Cumming used the role of the sardonic opposition and rebellious anti-authoritarian satire. (One recent UK revival combined the roles of Emcee and Ernst Ludwig, clarifying the shady Nazi racketeer's nebulous connection to the cabaret.) Russak plays the Emcee as a shadow-Sally. Her songs do not necessarily comment abstractly on the social and economic forces present in Bowles's life, so much as they comment directly and snarkily on the woman herself. Russak's Emcee has no loyalties and no beliefs, like Sally. She mocks Nazis, Jews and complacent "good Germans" with the same level of vitriol. Making an absurd mockery of Hitler in one scene, and unleashing a tirade of blows and ethnic slurs against Jews in their next appearance, Russak maintains his unflappable, defiant sneer to the end, a perfect exaggerated mirror of Sally's own lack of concern for politics and The lives of others. Nowhere is this clearer than in the performance of torch song "I Do not Care Much," which Russak escalates from a quiet rumination on the death of a love affair into a screaming insistence in her own unflappability. If she does not care- Sally or the Emcee alike- maybe this all still blows over. (SPOILER: The now-standard reveal of the Emcee as a gay Jew in the last moment of the show felt almost like a copout with Russak's angry, ambiguous performance; up until that moment she had been the perfect living portrayal of the famous parable about The bystander who did not speak up when "first, they came for the socialists ...")

It only takes one anecdote to sum up the importance of Cabaret at a time like this, and I'll close my review by recounting it: when Act 1 ends with a fascist singalong, swastikas dropping From above and an audio recording of Adolf Hitler, audience members squirmed in their seats, unsure whether or not to clap. I guess it's a relief that even today, this is still shocking.

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