OMAHA – “Cabaret” flirted with two sides of the emotional spectrum Tuesday evening, when it opened for a six-night run at Omaha’s Orpheum Theater.
Theater lovers came for the provocative and fun-filled reputation for which “Cabaret” is so well-known but stayed for the solemn portrayal of Berlin in the 1930s.
The unnerving nature of the Nazis’ rise contrasted vividly with scantily clad men and women – masterfully playing saxophones, violins, flutes and a slew of other instruments perched on a high-rise platform, when they weren’t dancing or singing on the main stage. The fact that every actor could play an instrument, sing, dance and draw raw emotion from audience members was both fascinating and intimidating – were these people even human?
“Cabaret” ran for the first time in 1966,and was revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company in 1998. After kicking it up a notch with suggestive dancing and brief nudity, Roundabout ended the play’s Broadway run in 2004. A second revival came to fruition in 2013, and this year “Cabaret” shares its 50th anniversary with the very company hosting it.
“In this historic year, I cannot think of a better production with which to share our work and mission with you,” said Roundabout’s artistic director Todd Haimes in the play’s program.
The show began with a welcoming song from a make-up coated, trench-coat-covered and military boot wearing man that the audience would soon come to love as their emcee (Randy Harrison). Soon after stripping off his coat and revealing the costume that sticks with him for most of the show, Harrison introduced his troupe of half-clothed accomplices.
Switching back and forth between French and English, Harrison kept the audience curious and waiting for more.
It should be noted early on that this performance is full of grabbing, thrusting, spanking and general tomfoolery – definitely not a play for the bashful or easily embarrassed. The temperatures in the Council Bluffs and Omaha metro area may be starting to cool down, but the Orpheum stayed hot during the entirety of the three-hour-long show.
“I dearly love that the show is smart and widely entertaining,” Harrison said during an interview with Nonpareil contributor Loyal Fairman.
Much of the story takes place in the Kit Kat Club, a seedy, racy nightclub that singer Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss) has made her temporary home. Cigars and cigarettes – which were exclusively allowed on stage for this production – were as abundant in the club as cymbal crashes.
When trouble strikes the club, Bowles finds solace in the arms of American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley). The relationship between Bowles and Bradshaw evolves and shifts throughout the show – much like the relationship between Bradshaw’s landlord, Fraulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray) and her suitor, Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson) – an older, charming couple who has rediscovered love after years spent alone.
But with Hitler’s rise to power becoming more and more evident, German Jews such as Herr Schultz must make difficult decisions.
Nineteen musical numbers – written by the same team who wrote songs for “Chicago” – alter the mood of each scene. Some – like “Perfectly Marvelous,” “Two Ladies” and “Money” – are flashy and fun. Others, such as “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “What Would You Do” are dark and brooding.
The audience laughs along with some numbers and gasps at others as the work ebbs and flows – eventually ending on a dramatically transformed stage during the most emotional scene of the night.
Suitably, I saw “Cabaret” on National Coming Out Day and was immediately struck by the tolerant nature of this work. Harrison spoke about how beautiful the girls, the club and the world were – even pulling aside two audience members for a quick dance and compliment.
One must wonder what 2016 might feel like if everyone treated it like the Kit Kat Club in 1930s Berlin. Promiscuous and shocking, yes, but also more open-minded and accepting than America today. That is before introducing the political purpose of the play, of course, which bring us back to the judgment and hatred that was so concrete in Nazi Germany.
“Cabaret” took a well-known historical event and flipped it – portraying the Holocaust in an entirely different way. It brought to light day-to-day life for Nazis, Jews and bystanders in Berlin, contrasting serious conversations with lively and playful song.
Flashing lights, rambunctious characters and delightful surprises can almost overpower the shock and horror brought to life throughout this work. But not quite entirely.