Last night saw the glamorous opening night performance of Showtune Productions revival of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret. The Athenaeum theatre was brimming with an enthusiastic audience, all ready to have a memorable night at the theatre. They were not disappointed. The first few rows of seats were replaced by café tables and chairs which seemed to extend the set into the auditorium. Many patrons wore costumes and even the royal boxes were full, which created real atmosphere. As is the tradition with this musical, the curtain is left open and we see the cast assemble on the stage before the show starts, the action beginning as the house lights dim.
The entrance of the Emcee (Paul Capsis) in silhouette set the audience cheering straight away. It was a clear acknowledgement of the high esteem in which he is held. This is the role it seems Capsis was born to play. In fact, producer David Hawkins developed this project with Paul Capsis in mind from the outset. His foresight was well placed as Capsis just owns this role. And what a cast this production has brought together. It’s class all the way from veterans to newcomers. From the performers, directors, designers and musicians, it was a feast of some of the best talent this country has to offer.
Set in 1930s Berlin at the seedy Kit Kat Klub,Cabaret revolves around young American writer Clifford Bradshaw and his relationship with cabaret singer Sally Bowles. Sally is played as the manic, zany English dreamer with gritty energy by Chelsea Gibb, one of our first ladies of the stage.
There is a parallel plot which involves an ill-fated romance between German rooming house Landlady Fraulein Schneider and her elderly beau Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit shop owner. They are played with great feeling by Kate Fitzpatrick and John O’May. It was a delight to see them together and to hear those songs. These characters were changed for the film, so most people wouldn’t be familiar with them or the numbers they sing. There is great chemistry between these performers illustrated beautifully in “It Couldn’t Please Me More” when Herr Schultz gifts Fraulein Schneider a pineapple.
The Klub stands as a reflection of what is happening in the real world. In that world we see the rise of Fascism and the Nazi party threatening to destroy the decadent artistic and cultural freedom of the Weimar Republic. The ensemble cast embodies the performers at the Klub, a variety of unsavoury characters, sailors and tarts and change from one to another seamlessly and with astonishing speed. (There must be a lot of Velcro in those costumes!) With wicked choreography by Kelley Abbey the dancers create the decadence of the Klub perfectly. In fact, all the cast do a great job with their dancing. Paul Capsis and John O’May in “Through My Eyes” is a stand out. The final line “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all” still has that slap-in-the-face impact it had back then.
Of course there has to be a despicable character and he arrives in the form of Ernst Ludwig played with icy cruelty by Michael Cormick. Ernst befriends aspiring American writer Clifford, who is the character who seems to observe the others and we see them through his eyes. The role is played by Jason Kos, a fine young singer and actor who gives a steady assured performance as a counterpoint to the manic Sally and the madness of the Kit Kat Klub. Ernst persuades him to unwittingly smuggle cash for the Nazi party from Paris to Berlin. Ernst Ludwig personifies the rising tide of fascism which begins to infest and destroy first the love between Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, and then of course the whole world. Another character who seems intent to spoil things is the prostitute Fraulein Kost, another rooming house tenant who is constantly entertaining sailors in her room. The part is delightfully brought to life by Debora Krizak, giving her the opportunity to show her abundant skills as a comic, character actor and singer.
This production was originally directed by Nicholas Christo, with this season directed for the Athenaeum stage by Gale Edwards. The staging is sensational and visually exciting with beautiful costumes, and the set designed by James Browne works brilliantly with the scene changes affected simply with lighting and easily moved props and furniture. The band, led by musical director Lindsay Partridge is located at the back of the set and is seen briefly behind the curtain. They are amplified so that the sound fills the theatre and the performers are miked to blend with the soundscape.
It all worked smoothly until the second act. Then it happened. Just as Sally (Chelsea Gibb) moved centre stage to sing her big number “Cabaret”, her body microphone failed. She tried to go on as it crackled and spat. Technicians went backstage but it continued. The audience wondered if she would try it un-miked against the amplified band. Then Capsis approached her and suggested she use his, but she couldn’t do it. Then out of nowhere, a forthright lady marched down the aisle and said, “You go off and get it fixed love, we’ll wait!” The audience roared its approval and off Sally/Chelsea went. In the meantime, Paul Capsis charmed the audience and sang softly to the aforementioned lady, (who was actually the show’s Melbourne director Gale Edwards).
Moments later, with mike fixed, Sally was reintroduced with another enormous roar from the crowd as she launched back into the song, giving it her all. When the song ended, the audience rose into a spontaneous standing ovation. We had seen real theatre and how adversity is handled by great artists, both onstage and off. Usually, technical problems detract from a performance, but in this case it added so much to it. The audience was fully engaged in the outcome and truly got emotionally involved. This is a night at the theatre that no one who was there will forget. This is a sublime musical, performed by a tremendous ensemble cast and is not to be missed.
Since it debuted on Broadway in 1966, Cabaret has evolved through its many revivals. Each one reflecting the times in which it is staged. With so much political instability in the world today, Cabaret again seems very relevant. The parallels between then and now are so clear that the audience is just as confronted by the Nazi images as they were originally. What has developed is the more overt sexuality in the staging and characterizations. Cabaret is based on the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood; a series of tales about his thinly-disguised adventures in Berlin during the last days before the Nazis came to power. In the original, Isherwood, unable to reveal his own homosexuality, makes his character (Clifford in Cabaret) bi-sexual which was as far as he dared go. Over the years as society’s attitude to homosexuality has softened, productions have been able to make Clifford’s bi-sexuality more obvious. This is a big help because the role is one of the outsider, the one who lives to tell this tale later from the safety of his home in the U.S.
“There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies, and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany and it was the end of the world.”