by John Stoltenberg
By the end of Act One, I was stunned and shaken. By the end of Act Two, I was speechless, not wanting to move. And I had seen this show before. The movie too. I already knew that it has a dark interior—that within the gorgeous score and acrid script lies the Nazi rise to power in 1930s Berlin. The show does not shy away. It depicts the onset of that inhuman depravity, which even still can be spoken of only with hushed sorrow and respect.
And yet, and yet…Joe Masteroff, John Kander, and Fred Ebb made of that horrific era an enduring book musical, which Signature Theatre has now mounted in an astounding and powerful production. The show is as melodious and eyecatching as ever. It can be—dare I say?—enjoyed. Yet under the sure hand of Director and Choreographer Matthew Gardiner, it is an iteration that always knows where it is going: directly into that darkness.
Gardiner’s muscular choreography is to my mind the most impressive component of this production (which is saying a lot because the show is full of phenomenal performances, fabulous costumes, and spectacular set and light effects). From the beginning the rough-and-tough choreography is the engine that drives the show to its nightmarish end. The movements are brusque and angular, replete with repetitive stomps. When goose steps appear late in Act One, they do not come from nowhere; they have been implicit in Gardiner’s bone-chilling choreography all along.
From the get-go Wesley Taylor’s edgy Emcee exudes beguiling cruelty, all sneering mockery, more cynical than sensual, more hateful than hot. No fey café jester he. This ostensible androgyne embodies pure pre-Nazi contempt, and Taylor’s transfixing performance displays the character’s hostility to the hilt.
Act One closes with the encroaching Nazi party given a high tenor’s voice in the deceptively lovely anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” As the lyric line crescendoed to a miltant chorale, it was like an emotional train wreck.
In Act Two the Emcee sings “If You Could See Her (with my eyes)” to someone costumed as an ape whose primate movements might suggest an innocuous clown show. Then when the ape mask comes off and a woman is revealed, the Emcee’s harsh punchline is “She doesn’t look Jewish at all!” She is the chorine Lulu, played by Shayna Blass, with a look on her face of hollow-eyed fear and humiliation. Blass as Lulu reappears at the end of Act Two stripped and pummeled as the victim of a vicious anti-Semitic assault. Blass’s performance in that scene conveyed such an extremity of vulnerability that it was too painful to watch.
So don’t come expecting sanctimonious catharsis or conscience-soothing sentimentality. This show starts dark, then gets starker. It is shattering beyond words, and Blass’s role at the very end is unforgettable.
In fact it is hard to imagine a more uncompromising and in-your-face Cabaret than Signature Theatre’s. “If you’re not against all of this, then you’re for it,” the visiting American writer Cliff (Gregory Wooddell) tells the English chanteuse Sally Bowles (Barrett Wilbert Weed). He is referring to the rise to power of German demagogues there and then. In this production those words resound against indifferent complicity right here and now.