Critic's PickDespite the jaunty title tune, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1966 musical Cabaret is not a happy tale of love or triumph. Cabaret is, in fact, a cautionary tale about mankind’s shortsightedness about evil, a preference to look the other way and avoid taking a stand for what’s right
Broadway director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has staged a Cabaret for the Cincinnati Playhouse that’s contemporary and relevant. It’s closer to a gut punch than a cheery love tap. Earnest Clifford Bradshaw (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka) is a cipher, a naïve writer in 1930 Berlin seeking subject matter and finding more than he bargained for. As the story ends, he’s running back to America with his tail between his legs, but finally putting pen to paper. His love affair with the willfully oblivious singer Sally Bowles (Liz Pearce) is in ashes.
Dodge’s Cabaret balances frenetic frivolity with a serious focus on a mature, genuinely loving couple, warm but desperate Fräulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray) and Herr Schultz (Michael Marotta), a sincere and proud Jewish merchant. They are driven apart by prejudice and fear. It’s a bleak story delivering a message that’s still relevant: Looking the other way is dangerous.
The Kit Kat Club’s omnipresent Emcee (Nathan Lee Graham) constantly smiles, but he’s the master of forced, sardonic hilarity that mounts as Cabaret hurtles toward its grim conclusion. He hosts the merry, dark frivolity at the club and hovers on the periphery of Cabaret’s realistic scenes, subtly inspiring those characters as much as as the club’s manic performers. Because Graham is African-American, he adds new meaning to the show’s candid messages about prejudice. (His “duet” with a gorilla, “If You Could See Her,” ends with a snarl, ramping up the number’s vicious irony.)
Dodge’s innovative and athletic choreography on the Marx Theater stage is especially effective, drawn more from dancing of the 1920s than choreography traditionally connected with Cabaret. Period costuming (by Angela Wendt) is spot-on, and “special effects” such as large papier-mâché heads for “bankers” in the “Money” number reinforce the surreal and sardonic tone.
The Playhouse is presenting a big-time, modern musical, thoughtful and provocative, excellently sung, danced and acted. The music is good enough to keep you humming; the story will leave you thinking.
CABARET, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Nov. 16.