by Lynn on May 26, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Book by Joe Masteroff, based on I Am A Camera by John Van Druten and Goodbye To Berlin Christopher Isherwood.
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Peter Hinton
Musical Direction by Paul Sportelli
Choreography by Denise Clarke
Set by Michael Gianfrancesco
Costumes by Judith Bowden
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound by John Lott
Starring: Benedict Campbell
Juan Chioran
Deborah Hay
Lorne Kennedy
Gray Powell
Jay Turvey
Jenny L. Wright,

A thought provoking concept that is so heavy-handed it overwhelms the irony and nuance in the work.

The Story. Berlin 1931. In the Kit Kat Klub cabaret there is an Emcee who welcomes you in three languages to come in, leave your troubles outside, relax, enjoy yourself in any way you want. Everything inside the cabaret is beautiful. Outside trouble is brewing. There is a political party that is rising in power that is frightening.

Cliff Bradshaw is an American who has come to Berlin to write a novel. He is introduced to the Kit Kat Klub and gets a bit waylaid when he meets Sally Bowles, an English woman who sings at the club. She also seems to sleep with most of the men she has met. Cliff becomes one of them.

There is a subplot involving Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit settler, and Fräulein Schneider, the proprietor of a boarding house where Cliff lives and teaches English to earn some money. Herr Schultz courts Fräulein Schneider by bringing her fruit.

Through it all the Emcee sings or leads the frenzied singing and dancing. Life inside the Cabaret goes on in its hedonistic way, oblivious to the growing unrest outside, until the unrest rears its ugly head and can’t be ignored any longer.

Background. First there was Christopher Isherwood’s novel, “The Berlin Stories” (1935), which was adapted into John Van Druten’s (1955) play, I Am A Camera. These led to the musical Cabaret with book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and directed by Harold Prince in 1966. In 1993 British director Sam Mendes directed a new version of the musical in which Cliff’s bisexuality was addressed among other changes. The 1993 Mendes version is the presently accepted version (Used at the Shaw Festival) until the show is rethought and we are blown away again.

The Production. Michael Gianfrancesco has designed a striking looking set in which the main playing area is a large black disc in the middle of which is a black winding staircase. Supporting the staircase are black rods that are the height of the staircase. Occasionally characters will hide in the space created by the rods, or wend their way through the maze of rods. In the case of the former the rods obstruct our view of the character, and in the case of the latter its looks awkward for characters to negotiate through the maze of rods.

As the audience arrives a character named Klown is already on stage applying details on his sad white faced makeup. He is dressed in a clown costume. A few other characters arrive to smoke, look out at the audience or the wings.

When the show begins, Cliff Bradshaw arrives with his typewriter and quickly goes up the winding stairs to the first landing, his room. There is the tapping sound of a typewriter. We will hear that sound effect throughout the show. Cliff addresses the audience and says, among other things, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking….” My eyebrows knit in puzzlement? Concern? Cliff isn’t supposed to begin the show. It’s supposed to be the Emcee. And while Cliff describes himself as “a camera” in “The Berlin Stories” and later in I Am A Camera, he isn’t a camera in Cabaret. It’s only at the end of the show that he actually sees what is going on in Germany and knows he has to get out of there.

Then Emcee rises up from beneath the stage into white light to begin the show proper with “Willkommen.” He is in white-faced makeup with slashes of black for eyebrows and facial features darkened for garish effect. His hair is gelled to a spike. His black costume is a version of tails with sharp fin-like additions. He looks like he could have come from an Egon Scheile painting. He smiles, flirts with the audience, welcomes them, says everything in the cabaret is beautiful. But then he says, “Leave your troubles outside,” screaming the word “outside” pointing to outside by flinging his arm straight out, almost in a Heil Hitler salute. My eyebrows knit again. This is hardly welcoming and it’s only the first song.

When Cliff appears as per the musical, he is on a train going to Berlin, along with many others on the train. They sit on their suitcases. Lighting designer Bonnie Beecher has an effect that projects stripes of light on each person, suggesting the striped uniforms of the prisoners in concentration camps. My eyebrows are crocheting.

I found that often Hinton’s staging of a song is cluttered and distracting. For example, in the lovely song “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” Herr Schultz is courting Fräulein Schneider by bringing her some fruit in a paper bag. She is delighted with it and finally pulls it out of the bag as the surprise of the song. At the same time the chorus sings accompaniment while sitting on the winding staircase, looking down on Fräulein Scheider and Herr Schultz. But when she pulls the surprise from the paper bag, each member of the chorus above them also holds up the same fruit at the same time. Ok, where do we look? At Fräulein Schneider? It is her song. Or do we look up at the chorus, because our focus is distracted? So often a character is on the stage, singing, and something happens on the staircase above to pull focus.

At the end the Emcee is on the stairs above the stage and Cliff is downstage mouthing the words of the Emcee above. It also looks like Cliff has become a puppet with the Emcee manipulating him. Why is a mystery. Then Cliff goes upstage stands on the spot where the Emcee first appeared, and Cliff lowers down and disappears. Don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.

The cast is exemplary. As the Emcee, Juan Chioran is striking, charming with an edge and immediately frightening. As Fräulein Schneider, Corrine Koslo has a charm that is at once disarming and also informed by the need to survive. She is matter of fact when dealing with Cliff about renting him a room. She is almost girlish with Herr Shultz. But there is a speech she has when it seems her world is crashing saying that when there was inflation, she survived; when there was a shortage of food, she survived; and when there was revolution she survived. And I realize that in a different time or play she is in fact Mother Courage, that quintessential survivor. Benedict Campbell plays Herr Schultz like a giddy, sweet but silly man who can’t/won’t see what’s coming. He is that deluded representative of those who were German first and Jewish second. Gray Powell plays Cliff Bradshaw with a mix of boyishness and the creeping realization that trouble is coming. Cliff has integrity and Powell brings that out beautifully. As Sally Bowles, Deborah Hay is buoyant, properly affected, over-the-top in some cases, and haunted. Hay has a beautiful voice and the creative smarts to know how to sing her songs as if Sally’s life depended on it. Her singing of “Cabaret” is angry, desperate and gut-wrenching. Sally has just had a brutal operation. She goes to the Kit Kat Klub to resume her job. I am sure I see two patches of dark stain around her crotch of the slinky, sequined dress she wears, indicating she is bleeding. That touch is devastating.

Comment. I have enormous respect for director Peter Hinton. He is an intellectual with a sharp eye for the visual in which the images of the scenes seem to be taken from paintings of the day. The ‘look’ is always arresting. He scrupulously researches the period of the plays he directs. He conjures a concept that he believes will illuminate the work. I don’t doubt that he thought of every single second of Cabaret in terms of his concept. He had me thinking about every single second too in terms of that concept. The problem is that his concept for Cabaret is so overbearing, so ham-fisted in your face in its effort to make the point, that it crushes the heart, soul and irony out of the show. Hinton didn’t direct what was going on in the cabaret so much as he directed what was going on outside the cabaret, and that has proven deadly to the show.

I am puzzled as to why Peter Hinton did not seem to have faith in the actual show of Cabaret and felt he had to add that first scene for Cliff when it does not appear in the musical. The problem for Cliff is that he doesn’t write during Cabaret because he’s caught up in the whirl-wind life in the Kit Kat Klub and with Sally. Only at the end of the show does he come up with his devastating line that will begin his novel. So having that sound effect of typing throughout the show is misplaced and ill-conceived.

So often Hinton foreshadows what will happen: concentration camps with prisoners in striped uniforms, book burning, people being displaced taking their luggage with them, clearly identified (in this production photos are on the luggage). The question is why is foreshadowing needed at all if history has given us hindsight that’s 20/20? It’s as if the audience is not trusted to know and has to be hit over the head to convey the message.

The musical Cabaret is a wonderful piece of theatre. Imagine it, a musical that beautifully depicts the heady, hedonistic world of the cabaret, set against the quietly insidious danger outside it that is coming to get them. It’s a musical full of subtlety, irony, humour and packs a wallop. I so wish that Peter Hinton had trusted the musical to convey its message, rather than imposing a concept that crushed the life out of it in his production.

The result left me painfully disappointed.

Opened: May 10, 2014
Closes: October 26, 2014.
Cast: 25; 15 men, 10 women
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes, one intermission

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