Review: CABARET at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont.

by Lynn on May 8, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.

Book by Joe Masteroff

Based on the play by John Van Druten and the Stories of Christopher Isherwood

Music by John Kander

Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed by Dennis Garnhum

Musical director, Wayne Gwillim

Choreography by Cameron Carver

Set and costumes by Alexandra Lord

Sound by Paul Fujimoto-Pihl

Lighting by Daniel Bennett

Cast: Isaac Bell

Tess Benger

Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane

James Daly

Phoebe Hu

Lawrence Libor

W. Joseph Matheson

Charlotte Moore

Margaret Thompson

A robust immersive production that in many cases is revelatory.

 The Story. We are in Berlin at the rise of fascism. The world is dangerous if you don’t fit in, are different, ‘other’. But in the Kit Kat Club everything is beautiful and welcoming in its own sleazy way. Outside aberrant is not acceptable. Inside anything goes.

Cliff Bradshaw, an American who has come to Berlin to write his novel, meets a man named Ernst on the train who seems a bit shady but charming. Ernst sends Cliff first to Fraulein Schneider for lodgings, and then to the Kit Kat Club for entertainment. There he meets Sally Bowles who sings at the club, and things go from there.

The Production. Director Dennis Garnhum uses the Sam Mendes  production of 1998 as his reference point and not the Harold Prince production of 1966. Mendes’ version was immersive with the audience sitting at cabaret tables and the cast would perform both on the stage and around the tables. Don’t worry I won’t compare the productions. (I never know why people would do that since they are so different, and separate and years apart, and I include the Garnhum production too.)

The audience is greeted at the door by a tall, bearded, charming man in fishnet stockings (Isaac Bell). He has just a hint of an accent and a flirty way with words. He tells us to go in and look around. The entrance to the ‘theatre’ is through the cluttered backstage area. We see men lounging. We look in a dressing room with all the stuff for which a show is being prepared. No one is there; they are all inside the theatre.

The audience sits at several long metal tables in the reconfigured McManus Theatre. Set and costume designer Alexandra Lord has created a set of walkways and platforms of the tables and raised runways on which the cast will dance, stomp, act and sing. We have to watch our elbows. There is a raised section to my right where there is a piano and other instruments.  And over there is a staircase going up to the second level of the theatre and the ‘club’.   Various characters/cast members come up to people at the tables and chat them up before the show. Initially it’s disorienting as we try to make out where we are, which is appropriate in a club such as the Kit Kat Club.

The make-up for everybody is garish, purposefully overdone (white face, thick black eye-liner, lipstick). The costumes are scanty for the Kit Kat girls. I love that the stockings for Fraulein Kost (a prostitute in Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house played with saucy confidence by Margaret Thompson) have a few runs in them. The costumes are appropriate for the 1930s in Germany.

The multi-talented cast play all the instruments needed to create the music. (Who knew that James Daly, who plays Cliff, played the trombone among other things?!)

W. Joseph Matheson is a touching, almost shy Herr Schultz. By contrast, Charlotte Moore as Fraulein Schneider, Herr Schultz’s lady-love, is direct, no-nonsense and wily. Lawrence Libor creates a chilling portrayal of Ernst, the man who keeps bringing money into the country for a particular political party that is quickly gaining prominence. Libor has that steely stare, that other worldliness, that would make him perfect for the Emcee in a future production of Cabaret. Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane as the Emcee here sings well and is lively but she lacks the sense of spookiness, that attitude that makes people uncomfortable. There is charm, but there should also be danger and irony and that’s missing here. James Daly has a boyish charm as Cliff. He is watchful of his surroundings and resourceful. You believe he will write an explosive book about that time in Germany.

The part of Sally Bowles is tricky. She is a second rate singer in this seedy club. She is usually played by a first rate talent who has to sing, act and dance and do it convincingly as a second-rate talent. Tess Benger as Sally Bowles nails it. Her Sally tries a bit too hard to be quirky, flirty and careless. Benger sings with a pure belter voice but Sally tries a bit too much to belt. It all works beautifully.

Ok, why do I think director Dennis Garnhum’s production is terrific and even revelatory? Lemme count the ways.

When Cliff meets Herr Schultz at Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house and tells him he’s there to write a novel, Herr Schultz (a wonderful W. Joseph Matheson) wishes him “Mazel.” (a Yiddish word meaning “congratulations, good luck” etc.)  Cliff asks Herr Schultz, “What does “Mazel” mean.” W. Joseph Matheson as Herr Schultz  pauses (his back is to Cliff) with a concerned look on his face because that word reveals him as a Jew. Herr Schultz believes he’s German first but he is mindful of how Jews are being treated in Germany. He turns back with a slight smile, having recovered from his moment of concern and gives Cliff the definition. I loved being grabbed by that pause and look of concern.

The Emcee sings “If You Could See Her” (with my eyes). There is a surprise ending to the song if it’s performed on a proscenium stage. The Emcee sings the song to the back of his lady-love expressing that ‘if you could see her with my eyes, you would see why I love her etc. “ At the end of the song the lyric is: “If you could see her with my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all,” and with that the person turns to face the audience and reveals she is wearing a gorilla mask. It’s quite chilling.

In Dennis Garnhum’s production the number is fascinating because as this immersive version is open and around the audience, we see that a person is wearing the gorilla mask from the get-go. The Emcee and the person in the mask move from the stairs around tables and then climb onto a walk-way to finish the song.  So revealing the gorilla mask at the end is not the surprise because we’ve seen the mask from the beginning. As the song goes on it’s funny because of the mask.  But here when the Emcee comes to the lyric: “if you could see her with my eyes…” the person in the mask takes it off revealing her own face, as she looks soberly around the room at the audience and then the MC says,  “She wouldn’t look JEWISH at all.” The moment has even deeper meaning because the person in the mask is Phoebe Hu, of Asian descent, which would have been considered ‘other’ in fascist Germany.

The joy at the engagement party of Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider is ruined when Ernst arrives, takes off his coat and reveals he’s wearing a swastika armband. He implies the marriage can’t happen because Herr Schultz is Jewish. Fraulein Schneider is in a difficult situation. What does she do? Her uncertainty is beautifully conveyed by Charlotte Moore.

To further make the point slowly people at the party begin singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, the anthem for the Fatherland rising up and taking its place in the world. For most of it Fraulein Schneider is silent and conflicted, but towards the end of the song she joins in.  It is half hearted but she knows she has to play that game. So when she declines the offer of marriage the next day it’s been set up with her singing and not just because Nazi Ernst caused trouble. I’m not sure if it’s ever been played like that before, but it is the first time I’ve noticed. Brilliant.

At the end when Cliff is leaving Germany and begins writing on the train he says, “There was a cabaret and an Emcee. There was a city named Berlin in a country named Germany and it was the end of the world. And I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both sleepwalking.” I had always seen productions that had Cliff pause at “and it was the end of the world.” This production didn’t have him pause there. Rather Cliff sailed on to the last bit about dancing with Sally Bowles and “we were both sleepwalking.” I loved that new revelation. It’s not the end of the world that is the focus of the speech. It’s that they didn’t know it because they were sleepwalking. Love that!!!

The production ended with everybody marching across the back of the space holding their suitcases as if going to concentration camps, staring into stark lights and then simulating being shot as they stared.


Comment. Dennis Garnhum has created a bracing, revelatory, joyous, gut-twisting production of this brilliant musical. I never get tired of seeing it, certainly when it’s this compelling.

The Grand Theatre presents:

Began: April 9, 2019.

Closes: May 18, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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