In his book “The Romantic School,” the German-Jewish poet and journalist Heinrich Heine praised Germany for cherishing “the idea of humanitarianism” and “the idea of the universal brotherhood of mankind.” At the same time, Heine warned of German nationalism, which “consists in narrowing and contracting the heart, just as leather contracts in the cold; in hating foreigners; in ceasing to be European and cosmopolitan, and in adopting a narrow-minded and exclusive Germanism.”
Both humanist Germany and the xenophobic Germany of Heine’s 1800s description meet side by side in violent friction in the 1966 musical “Cabaret,” playing at Silhouette Stages in Columbia through June 2. The production is set in the years during which the Nazis were coming to power in Germany.
Those new to the show will be spellbound.
Those who know the work of old might be in for a bit of a shock, as this may not be the Cabaret they remember, especially if they only knew the work via the 1972 Academy Award-winning film version.
The show traces the fall of the Weimar Republic of post-World War I Germany, though it does so through the lens of a cabaret and two more-or-less doomed romances.
Unexpected love first comes into the lives of American journalist Clifford Bradshaw (a youthful and engaging Seth Fallon) and English Cabaret singer Sally Bowles (played vulnerably and outrageously by the beautifully-voiced Megan Mostow).
The next couple to be smitten are middle-aged Fräulein Schneider and the aging Herr Schultz. The second subplot did not appear in the 1972 film version. That is not an insignificant difference, for this original version subplot has musical numbers absent from the film, including the engaging “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” or “The Pineapple Song,” sung with infectious charm by Pamela Northrup (as Fräulein Schneider) and Christopher Kabara (as Herr Schultz).
The flamboyant Emcee played to the hilt by Tommy Malek, makes this production a real show-stopper, thanks to the way he charmingly engages with the audience.
At one point, an audience member is brought on stage to dance with him. He asks her name, and when she gives an American moniker, he retorts: “Vat? Dat is not a German name!” thus mocking the “narrow-minded and exclusive Germanism” of the Nazis.
Malek wonderfully channels a bit of Joel Grey of the Broadway and film versions, who made the part so thoroughly his own.
Yet he is just as effective as Grey, using both his physical size and his vivacity to his advantage in this production. Some of the best numbers belong to the simultaneously lecherous, hospitable and slightly sinister Emcee character, including “The Money Song” and the opening song “Willkommen” (German for “welcome;” there is a good bit of the German language in the show, including the song “Heiraten” about marriage.)
One aspect of this production which may shock even those used to the Broadway version and its alternate storyline is its acknowledgment of drug use by the characters, which was actually fairly common in Weimar, Germany. One example: Bowles snorts a line of cocaine. Equally frank is the treatment of homosexuality during this era; while tolerated during the Weimar Republic, during the Nazi era homosexuals were forced to wear the pink triangle and later, arrested and sent to concentration camps, a fate which seemingly befalls some of the characters in this staging of the show.
Brilliant montages are alternating between the gloomy reality of the crumbling Weimar Republic as the Kurt Weill-style musical numbers which parody the ghastly political situation. The orchestra, conducted by Michael Tan, is spot on with its recreation of musical styles at the time and of the show’s Broadway qualities. Adding to the musical authenticity of the production is the playing of the album “Berlin Cabaret Songs” by celebrated German chanteuse Ute Lemper as the audience awaits this production of “Cabaret” to begin.
Is “Cabaret” a political parable?
The character of Sally Bowles is shown to be charming, seductive, fun and apolitical, but appears to value her career above motherhood and her fur coat above all.
She is English – perhaps a Neville Chamberlain-style figure, ignoring the reality of Nazi barbarism as it emerges. Clifford is American – concerned about the situation, but powerless to do much about it. The show could have chosen an easy way, directly drawing draw parallels to the resurgence of anti-Semitism and anti-foreign sentiments found in Western countries today.
Director Stephen Foreman wisely does not do this directly, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions. The production, however, does bring new attention to the plight of LGBT persons during the era of the Third Reich, including roundups of suspected homosexuals.
Some may find, however, that the production sidelines the genocide against the Jews with its focus on the suffering of the LGBT community as the Jewish character of Schultz watches on at its plight detached from the side. Historically, gays, Jews, Gypsies and the mentally ill were all cruelly targeted for annihilation by the Nazis.
Overall, though, this stunning and daring production of “Cabaret” is recommended for long-time fans of the musical as well as those experiencing the show for the very first time. Parents should be cautioned, however, that the frank depictions of violence, sexuality and drug use make it unsuitable for young children.