Those who look at Raleigh’s Broadway Series South’s offerings and ponder the possible redundancy of the North Carolina Theatre have a show they need to see. It’s Cabaret, the latest NCT production, and it closes this weekend in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Kander and Ebb’s cautionary memoir of Berlin during the rise of National Socialism is crisp and taut, darkly repellant and just as darkly attractive–as any competent production of this show should be. But director Connie Shafer’s take on the 1998 reinvention of this show by directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall and designers Robert Brill and William Ivey Long effectively reminds us why something besides a “professional touring version” of it is needed in the world.
Yes, we go to theater to see new work. But we return to it for the possibility of finding something new in something old–new talent, new insight, new interpretation. It’s a point non-musical theater has never lost sight of: For a moment just try imagining, for example, the sole touring version of Othello or King Lear.
Still, some of those who grasp the absurdity of a single, licensed Hamlet have pondered if the mission of Broadway Series South might be too near to that of NCT.
The answer is no. The proof of it is on stage this week.
This is not to argue that this work is without flaws: Individual interpretations frequently have both high and low points. For example, most productions snip the early “Telephone Song” in favor of “Mein Herr,” in order to emphasize the carnivorous sexuality of the Kit Kat Club. When the NCT production does just the opposite, two things happen: The song does establish and reinforce what passes as “business as usual” at the club, and something important goes missing in our early innings in the dark.
That’s not why I’ll remember this production. Instead, I’ll recall how Ms. Shafer made this work her own, in nuances and moments that conveyed a unique understanding of the script, the world and the show.
In collaboration with actor Brian Duguay, Ms. Shafer is the first Cabaret director of my acquaintance to merely dramatize–as opposed to melodramatize–the bisexuality of Cliff, the would-be American novelist who discovers far too much in old Berlin. His is no shameful secret when other characters repeatedly try to play the gender card. Is it improbable, given the times? Perhaps so–but after too many instances of socio-sexual victimage that are far too uniform, it’s also damned refreshing.
Not so little moments: the lilting, gentle, male four-part harmonies of the first iteration of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and its contrast with the second version–when the entire crowd at Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider’s wedding party is swept away by its now nationalist–and Nazi–political implications. As choreographed by Jennifer Werner, the celebrants in chorus are far more menacing than Officer Ludwig–a convincing picture of the social tide Schneider knows she cannot fight. Instead, she looks on in horror, as do the foreigners, at what is coming to pass before their eyes.
I’ll recall the degree to which Kenny Morris’ Herr Schultz almost wins her back in the following scene–which makes the ultimate loss even more tragic. And I’ll definitely remember Rebecca Hoodwin’s weatherbeaten, worn–and entirely appropriate–singing voice as Schneider, on the song after all this, “What Would You Do?”
After the seduction-as-assault of the opening sequences, the sense of attrition inside the club remains with me as well. Christopher Sloan’s Emcee visually all but quotes a Batman’s Joker, albeit one who by now has thoroughly explored his own sexuality–along with everyone else’s. His energy is infectious, particularly in the early sections. But if it dips during Sally Bowles’ hopeful solo “Maybe This Time,” it flags after his compelling second-act spotlight number “I Don’t Care Much.” By then, an opening Act 2 chorus line has conveyed the dancers’ oppression more than their entertainment.
The Emcee’s grin becomes a rictus as he hectors the audience with a particularly nasal “Thank Yew” at the lack of applause when Cliff is beaten up by thugs. His exhaustion is complete by the time he introduces Deborah Gibson for her last number as Sally Bowles. With dripping mascara and unkept appearance, Gibson’s performance of the title song radiates pure distress.
Clearly, the party’s been over for quite a while. And just as clearly, the ones still left on stage are only beginning to realize it. It’s the first time in any Cabaret I’ve seen that the walls around the Kit Kat Club began to crumble as early as they do.
It makes sense when it happens. In this production, you’d have to be dead to the world not to see the impending, total cultural collapse–but the ones remaining behind clearly are. Thus Cliff’s famous final words: It was the end of the world. And they all were fast asleep.
Byron Woods can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.