Theater Review: CABARET (Cygnet Theatre Company in San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on August 14, 2022

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


One of the wonderful things about period pieces, including musicals, is that they rarely feel dated because the book writer (Joe Masteroff, in this case) starts with the premise that the show isn’t happening now. What’s marvelous, and sometimes chilling, about this fifty-six year old book is that it’s perhaps more relevant to 2022 than it was to 1966 when it debuted.

Our premise is that poor, American would-be-novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Wil Bethmann) comes to Berlin in the 1930s, hoping for inspiration for his writing. On a night out at the burlesque “Kit Kat Klub,” he catches the eye of the show’s centerpiece, bold and beautiful Sally Bowles (Megan Carmitchel). When Sally is fired from the club and loses her housing upstairs, she shows up at his tiny rented room and announces she’s staying. After some negotiation, he agrees and their romance blossoms … for a while.

The B-plot of the musical concerns their stern but kindhearted German landlady, Frauline Schneider (Linda Libby). The aging spinster is being tenderly courted by Herr Schultz (Eddie Yaroch), but her joy at his advances is curbed by the realities of what becomes of a businesswoman who would marry a Jew.

A significant role is the “emcee” (Karson St. John) who has no lines outside songs and no actual bearing on the plot, but who colors the mood tremendously. The emcee sings some of the most famous songs in the show, such as “Wilkommen”, “Two Ladies”, and “If You Could See Her.”

One thing to get straight from the beginning: If you think you’ve seen Cabaret because you saw the movie, you don’t know this show. The primary plot of Sally and Cliff (renamed Brian in the film) is fairly similar, though a pivotal character in the movie isn’t in the live show at all. More surprising, the Schneider/Schultz plot is outright eliminated in the film to focus all attention on the young couple. In the stage production, many songs are sung by characters to express their feelings. For the film, numerous songs were replaced or eliminated outright so that all but one song are relegated to stage of the Kit Kat Klub. The film is marvelous, to be sure; it’s just tremendously different.

So does Cygnet’s production under Sean Murray’s direction work? Oh, yes.

With solid performances by all men in the cast, this show truly rests on the three women. Ms. St. John (whom I try to catch in everything she does in town) exquisitely walks the line of dynamic, upbeat, and creepy, nailing every number of the emcee’s. Murray also utilizes the emcee cleverly in having her influence unrelated scene work, like a ghost putting things in motion. Although, as much as this critic generally supports genderblind casting, and by no fault of Ms. St. John, the amorphous orientation of the gender-bending role feels inherently edgier when played by a man, as he would be labeled an effeminate degenerate and sent to a concentration camp along with the Jews.

Ms. Libby, with an endless list of San Diego credits (including masterfully handling Mama Rose at ion theatre in 2011) is perfect as Schneider, giving her dignity, humor, and pathos.

Ms. Carmitchel easily holds court as Sally, but steps up to being goosebumps-inducing and riveting in the show’s biggest hit, “Cabaret.”  Murray’s direction coupled with Carmitchel’s intense commitment takes the familiar upbeat number and turns it on its head, transforming it into a twisted, nearly monstrous cry of Sally’s desperation, which led to well-deserved cheers afterward.

The Kit Kat Klub numbers need to win the audience over for this show to work; happily Katie Banville’s choreography shines through the cast time and again. The ensembles’ delivery of Fred Ebb’s lyrics set to John Kander’s music through Cygnet’s small live orchestra is splendid.

Cabaret is a rollercoaster of laughs, romance, and two-by-fours to the head, as heavy themes come out time and again, amid people just trying to live their lives in terrible times. As we listen to the undeserving masses boldly declaring in song “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” it’s hard not to think of hundreds storming the Capitol, believing this outcry. It’s easy to hide in the Kit Kat Klubs of the world where the emcee tells us — or, rather, warns us — that “Life Is Beautiful!”, but Cabaret reminds us that no matter how loud the band may play, there’s a stronger drum beat in the distance and we’d better be listening.

photos by Rich Soublet, Ken Jacques and Jay McNabb

Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on Sept 18, 2022
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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