This reviewer once attended a lecture given by the famous author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Wiesel made a salient and very troubling point about the Nazi regime.
With its crimes against humanity, Germany’s Nazi leadership and its architects of the Holocaust, he assumed, had been largely made up of uneducated, uncultured people who rose to power and abused that power in unimaginably evil ways.
Upon researching the backgrounds of key Nazi figures, however, Wiesel was surprised to learn that many in the Nazi hierarchy were from very cultured circumstances and could boast of wide-reaching, humanistic educational backgrounds.
Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s infamous propaganda minister, wrote a doctoral dissertation on 19th century Romantic literature, and Hitler himself had studied to be an artist. Wiesel was shocked that culture and education had failed to act as a shield against the inhumanity which infested and defined the Third Reich. They had instead been used as tools for its promotion.
This thought was called to my mind while watching Olney Theatre Center’s current production of the musical “Cabaret,” which details the lives of performers and patrons of the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret in Berlin during the dying days of the 1920s-era Weimar Republic, Germany’s failed interwar experiment with democracy just prior to the rise of Hitler and World War II.
Many productions of “Cabaret” portray the Kit Kat Klub, the show’s main setting, as a seedy tavern frequented by the down-and-out and desperate. The lead character, Kit Kat Klub star Sally Bowles
Sally Bowles, is similarly downtrodden, holding her job largely through her romantic relationship with the club owner. If the Kit Kat Klub is, in fact, a dumpy bar for losers, then the Nazis can similarly be dismissed as coming from the outer fringe of society.
Olney Theatre Center’s production goes in a much different direction: rather than being a dive, the Kit Kat Klub is an upscale Art Deco venue with chandeliers, an orchestra playing the latest jazz in evening dress and stage performers sporting flamboyant, expensive costumes. Flashing stage lights in synchronization with the musical numbers add to the Broadway-style opulence.
The first appearance of Sally Bowles follows this pattern: she and the chorus girls are dressed in risqué but stunning Rococo costumes. The club’s master of ceremonies similarly wears elaborate plumes – just before he throws a brick through the shop window of a Jewish shop owner. The famous “Money” song features a chorus of top-hatted capitalists donning expensive formal wear.
Such a focus on the club’s elegance thus accomplishes two results: first, it allows the Olney production to stage splendid creations of the musical numbers of this iconic Broadway musical.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, it drives home the point that the Kit Kat Klub’s Nazi and soon-to-be Nazi patrons represent upper-class and aspiring upper-class society in early 1930s Berlin; the Nazi movement was thus not a fringe phenomenon developing from the most desperate people but reached the highest echelons of German society.
Sally Bowles is played by a charismatic and beautifully voiced Alexandra Silber, while Greg Maheu is excellent as her lover Clifford Bradshaw. Silber and Maheu have excellent chemistry, as witnessed by their duet “Perfectly Marvelous.”
Donna Migliaccio equals them as Fräulein Schneider and Mitchell Hébert as Herr Schultz charmed a wildly enthusiastic audience on opening night with “It Couldn’t Please Me More.” The Kit Kat Klub’s Master of Ceremonies is brilliantly played by Mason Alexander Park, who makes the part all his own by bringing a bit of American stand-up to the role.
The Cabaret Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Youstra, must come in for special praise, especially the drum work of percussionist Mark Carson and the saxophone solos of Andrew Axelrad on the Sally Bowles/Alexandra Silber show-stopping numbers “Maybe This Time” and “Life is a Cabaret.”
Another noteworthy aspect of this production is the experimental staging used for the ending. Many productions of “Cabaret” today spell out the eventual fates, often tragic, of the characters.
In this production, the characters simply stand before us at the end of the play in a fully lit auditorium, perhaps so that we reflect on what these characters have experienced, that we are urged out of the theatre to effect positive social change in society, à la the Epic Theatre views of Weimar Republic playwright Bertolt Brecht.
The orchestra stops playing instruments discordantly one by one to increase this “alienation effect.” While striking as a conclusion, this reviewer has mixed feelings about this approach; the original “Cabaret” ending closes with upbeat music, which is possibly even more disturbing as if turning a blind eye to the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism shown in the play.
This Olney Theatre Center production is worth seeing on all counts. It is an outstanding production in terms of acting and singing, and its elegant Kit Kat Klub causes us to reflect on the extent to which high society and its pretensions to culture can shield against or serve to promote barbarism. “Cabaret” continues its performances through Oct. 6.