Theater Review: CABARET (Old Globe in San Diego)

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by Dan Zeff on September 10, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


Cabaret is a masterpiece of American musical theater that has been presented in a vast variety of musical and physical shapes and sizes since its premiere on Broadway in 1966. The score has been cut, added to, and shifted around, and the mood and look have been countlessly revised. So audiences attending the current revival at the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center at the Old Globe Theater likely will enter the auditorium possessing familiarity with the show in at least one adaptation. But even veteran Cabaret watchers should be enthralled anew by the wondrous revival brilliantly guided by director-choreographer Josh Rhodes.

Lincoln Clauss as Emcee

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 Old Globe production offers the more risqué 1998 Roundabout Broadway version by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, which retains bookwriter Joe Masteroff‘s superstructure of the original Cabaret. It is still set in the morally and politically turbulent city of Berlin in 1931, on the brink of the Nazi takeover of Germany the next year. Most of the action is confined within the walls of a sleazy nightclub called the Kit Kat Klub. Our guide throughout the musical remains the club’s smarmy entertainer, known only as the Master of Ceremonies, the role that made Joel Grey a star.

The cast of Cabaret

The central characters are Clifford Bradshaw, a struggling American author. and a second-rate feckless English singer named Sally Bowles using the club as a dubious path to show business stardom. There is also an endearing and ultimately tragic romance between a gentle Jewish fruit seller named Herr Schultz and Bradshaw’s hard-edged landlady Fraulein Schneider. The narrative is invaluably supplemented by a versatile and talented male and female chorus line.

Bruce Sabath as Herr Schultz and Kelly Lester as Fräulein Schneider

The texture of the production superbly combines music, dancing, dialogue, lighting, and vivid costumes. and sound. Josh Rhodes melds all these theatrical components into shifting mosaics of humor, romance, and ultimately somber drama. The chorus is an active participant in small groups and as a complete unit. They even perform a display of swinging dance during the entr’acte that is one of the production’s highlights, though it has nothing to do with the various mini-dramas scattered throughout the show.

The cast of Cabaret

Although the sinister rise of Nazism ultimately casts a cloud of menace over the characters, the Nazi element isn’t injected as a theme until the long first act comes to a conclusion. At a party celebrating the engagement of Fraulein Schneider to Herr Schultz, one of the characters suddenly removes his jacket, revealing a Nazi swastika armband, producing gasps throughout the audience. From that point on, the story descends into the beginnings of the Nazi nightmare, the final blackout ending with a stunning grotesque image foretelling the horrors to come in Germany and beyond

The cast of Cabaret

This is the most musical version of Cabaret I’ve ever seen, the playbill listing 20 separate numbers and reprises throughout the two acts. The score by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) combines edgy songs reflecting an edgy Kurt Weill influence (“Willkommen”) with yearning ballads (“Maybe This Time”), and, most startling of all, (“Tomorrow Belongs to Me”) a stirring and melodic song that turns out to be a shocking Nazi patriotic anthem. The nine musicians situated on a dark balcony above the action sounded like a full-scale symphony orchestra.

Joanna A. Jones and the cast of Cabaret

Before the performance began, I was disheartened to read a playbill insert announcing that Lincoln Clauss would be unable to fulfill the role of the Master of Ceremonies for this weekend (the official opening was last Wednesday, Sept. 6). I feared the absence of the production’s lynchpin role might be fatal. But happily, replacement Michael Seltzer (promoted from the chorus) gave a triumphant performance in a subtly demanding role.

Joanna A. Jones as Sally Bowles and Alan Chandler as Clifford

At first, I was a little put off by Joanna A. Jones‘s slightly off-key blast furnace singing voice until I realized that voice belonged to Sally Bowles and not to Jones. When Jones sang her most affecting numbers later in the show she was as first-rate as her acting. Alan Chandler was just right as Clifford Bradshaw, a sympathetic young man out of his depth in the sound and fury of 1931 Berlin. The audience rightfully fell in love with Bruce Sabbath and Kelly Lester as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. They elevated characters who could have come across as sentimental minor figures into three-dimensional figures who made major contributions with limited stage time. Also, hats off to Abby Church as a savvy hooker and Alex Gibson as a wily Nazi.

Lincoln Clauss as Emcee

The chorus deserves highest marks as dancers, prop movers, and singers — and occasionally even entering the audience to schmooze with the customers. They are Amy Smith, Natalia Nieves-Melchor, Trina Mills, Celeste Lanuza, Karma Jenkins, Leeds Hill, Brandon Halvorsen, John Viso, Yoni Haller, and Christian Douglass.

It is with great appreciation that I list the creative designers who helped make the night so special. They are Tijana Bjelajac (scenery), Alejo Vietti (costumes), Cory Pattak and Paul Vaillancourt (lighting), Haley Parcher (sound), and Robert Meffe (music director).

photos by Jim Cox

Asolo Repertory Theatre Production
Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
Tues & Wed at 7; Thurs & Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on October 8, 2023 EXTENDED to October 15, 2023
for tickets, call 619.234-5623 or visit The Old Globe

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