Theater Review: CABARET (Wildsong Productions at The Ocean Beach Playhouse, San Diego)

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by Tony Frankel on July 24, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


You better tell Momma and everybody else to come see Wildsong’s production of Cabaret, which opened last weekend in Ocean Beach. When you take into consideration that this is “community theater” on a shoestring budget, it is nothing short of miraculous that this incarnation has some of the most indelible moments of any Cabaret I’ve seen. And while a very few actors may have a tinge of amateur, they never get in the way of this express train to hell in Nazi Germany.

Based on gay author Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Diaries, and the ensuing play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, Cabaret is a cautionary tale about getting caught up in history and getting out just in time. The author’s surrogate, Clifford Bradshaw (Tyler Jiles), slowly gets tangled in the dirty doings of 1929 Berlin, enjoying its last fling of freedom before the Weimar Republic succumbs to the Third Reich. Cliff doggedly bears witness to his own seduction as a poor expatriate; both as a smuggler employed by the infamous Ernst Ludwig (Alan Ramos), then as a bodymate (no soul here) with self-destructive Sally Bowles (Kaylee Marie), a capricious goodtime girl and second-rate singer who won’t let the party end.

Equally entrapped by the bad times that will doom millions are Cliff’s landlady Fräulein Schneider (Rachel Mink) and her ersatz lover Herr Schultz (Matt Sayre), a Jewish fruitmonger who forlornly hopes that being born German will protect him from the Brown Shirts. Renting at Scneider’s boarding house is Fräulein Kost (Brittney Seibert) —  it’s always fascinating to remember that the Nazi’s chief female supporter is a whore.

This more risqué rendition of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s 1998 Roundabout Broadway revival updates Joe Masteroff‘s 1966 book. This one is decidedly more decadent, sexual, poignant, and dark than previous versions, eliminating some of John Kander & Fred Ebb‘s unimprovable songs (“Meeskite” “The Telephone Song,” and “Sitting Pretty”), but adding three songs from the film version, as well as the Emcee’s lesser known and eminently haunting “I Don’t Care Much,” which was cut from the original production.

That means the infamous Kit Kat Club — where Sally meets Cliff after her performance of “Don’t Tell Mama” — now has straight, gay and trans performers alike, each of whom are given carte blanche to express their identities in an inferno of music, movement and joy.

As for director/choreographer Brooke Aliceon‘s Kit Kat girls, this is the most ragtag motley clowder I’ve yet encountered. From heroin chic to amply voluptuous, these ghostly gamines are dressed in lingerie as though they came straight from their bedrooms to party and play. The Emcee of the club is played by Kannon Gowen as a hulking, charm-free, almost threatening presence — volatile, manic, greasy and aggressive. His gender fluidity has a danger in it that is both of its time and completely contemporary (his lines have a bit of the inflections made famous by Alan Cumming).

Gowen and the girls can sing, but no one’s trying to make it pretty. Together with Aliceon’s demanding dancemaking, executed extraordinarily well on the small stage, we get a sense that these degenerates know their days are limited (trans folk mostly were rounded up before Jews), expressing themselves for all their worth. The girls also wait on you at VIP tables on either side of a runway up front; VIP tickets also get you a pre-show from Klub performers — my favorite was a German ballad sung with Weimar-era perfection by Julia Roskopf.

Which brings us to Sally. With an impeccable English accent, Kaylee Marie is a revelation. She’s all needy little girl who screams her songs with cuteness and desperation (the character is based upon 19-year-old cabaret singer Jean Ross). Ms. Marie is effective because of her gamin-like quality in a fur coat, while not giving a shit what people think of her. She’s determinedly blind to her surroundings, let alone to her own limitations as a performer — it is no easy task to play someone with little talent and still carry off one of the great songs in the history of musical theater.

Productions of Cabaret are popping up everywhere. In San Diego alone, Cygnet did it last year, and The Old Globe’s begins in the fall. Yet, Wildsong’s suitably dark and scrappy revival amazed me — I often felt as though I was really in that tiny club, where everybody is broke due to the spiraling hyperinflation of the time (Shaun Lim‘s amazing lights and Gowen’s perfect sound, balancing mics with a track, helped immensely). Come to this Cabaret!

photos by Brooke Aliceon

Wildsong Productions
OB Playhouse (in Ocean Beach) 4944 Newport Ave in San Diego
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 6
performance dates and times vary; see website for specificsends on August 20, 2023for tickets, visit Wildsong

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