I am terrible with names. I’m especially terrible with the names of people I should certainly know—high school friends, family members, famous people, etc. It takes me a few hours or even days before I finally remember who they are and then they are long gone before I have the ability to really connect with them. It’s an embarrassing curse. Back in 1990, while living in Los Angeles, the woman I was dating at the time was starring in a little show called Flora, The Red Menace at The Pasadena Playhouse. I had never heard of the show, but it introduced to me one of my now all-time favorite songs in musical theatre- “A Quiet Thing.” On opening night, I was backstage with my girlfriend as she was getting dressed and putting on her makeup and she said she wanted me to meet some people. She introduced me to the director (Scott Ellis) and then she introduced me to two old gay queens that I thought were maybe the costume designer or stage manager. She said, “Kevin, this is John and Fred.” That’s it. I said hello to them and thought nothing of it. They were just two unassuming men mixed in with the hubbub of a backstage cast and crew getting ready to open a show. As I then went to take my seat and read the program, I wondered who might have written the music and lyrics for this cute little show. Let’s see. The composer was John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Hmm. Those names sounded familiar—John and Fred…what?? I’m such an idiot. I had just met Kander and Ebb and couldn’t have been less interested! Of course, I couldn’t find them again in the crowd after the show that night and I’ve been kicking myself ever since.
Flora, the Red Menace was Kander and Ebb’s first musical to be produced on Broadway back in 1965 and it was not a commercial success. In fact, it flopped. The only highlight was that the leading actress in that show won a Tony Award. That little known starlet at the time was named Liza Minnelli. Before writing their biggest hit of their career (Chicago), Kander and Ebb wrote Cabaret in 1966 which won the Tony Award for Best Musical and then starred “Liza with a ‘Z’” in the movie version which cemented Minnelli as a star in her own right. Liza Minnelli is to Cabaret, what Judy Garland is to The Wizard of Oz—it’s hard to imagine anyone else starring in these movies. The roles made them both (gay) icons. As an actress, I would imagine it’s near impossible to not have these legends in the back of your mind anytime you take on a Dorothy Gale or Sally Bowles. Likewise, actresses are going to have to deal with the inevitable comparisons that audiences are going to put them through each and every performance. It’s a daunting task and not for the faint of heart. Cabaret, which opened this past weekend at Playhouse on the Square, offered plenty to cheer about despite a lead who simply tried too hard to impress.
Cabaret takes place in Germany just before the rise of Nazism and the belief that politics was light years away from the bawdy and tawdry nightclub world of sex, drugs and swing. The Kit Kat Klub (KKK?) is every pansexual’s ultimate fantasy playground where the boys will be girls and the girls will be banged. Who cares what’s happening outside the nightclub, when there’s music to sing, alcohol to drink and crotches to grab? Escapism at its best! Of course, that hedonistic, selfish attitude will always come back to bite everyone on their slap-happy asses in the (ahem) end, but it’s fun while it lasts. Since our current President of the United States likes to make everything about him, it’s hard not to compare what’s happening with Trump and the rise of Hitler. How many people in America are proudly ignorant of their government and the damage that’s coming? Like the partiers in Cabaret, are we also headed towards our ultimate demise, laughing all the way? For a show displaying so much alcohol and drugs, it’s quite sobering.
Under the strong direction of Dave Landis, Cabaret provides high-class, low-class entertainment. For this pansexual viewer, watching Landis’ Kit Kat Klub and its patrons was pure paradise. Everyone on the stage is beautiful, sexy and alluring. All of them can dance, sing while oozing sexual energy from every orifice. The choreography by Travis Bradley/Jordan Nichols is quite impressive (especially the opening number, “Willkomen”), however the ass slapping and pelvic thrusting moves did wear a bit thin after a while. The set design by Mark Guirguis proved to be functional, but watching stage walls (flats) swing more than the doors they’re trying to support is inexcusable. Justin Gibson’s lighting design was quite good, except for the use of a red light over the audience, combined with the arbitrary moments the houselights would come up mid-song as the actors entered the audience. For example, I’m sure there was a clear artistic choice for Sally Bowles to come out into the audience during one of the show’s most popular songs, “Maybe This Time,” but I didn’t get it and, instead, found myself watching the well-lit audience members watching the actress rather than getting lost in the song. It was a distraction.
The personal relationships against the backdrop of the rise of the Nazis is really what Cabaret is all about. At the forefront, is the tale of Sally Bowles (an English woman performing in the Kit Kat Klub) and Cliff Bradshaw (an American writer coming to Berlin to work on his new novel). They develop a relationship, deal with a possible baby and ultimately decide to go their separate ways at the end. It’s a plot point, I guess, but not a very strong or engaging one. In the iconic role of Sally Bowles is Whitney Branan. Branan is no doubt a strong dancer and provides plenty of star-turning moves, but seemed to struggle a bit with the vocals and really missed the mark in her overall portrayal. Her vocal delivery, rate, volume, tone and pitch remained constant throughout the show despite the situation and it made the performance one-dimensional. I wanted to experience the emotional ebbs and flows of the character, but she never wavered from her loud, elevated, intense, fast-paced, overly dramatic vocal delivery (Imagine Norma Desmond playing Sally Bowles). Donald Sutton, in the role of Cliff Bradshaw, is a fine actor, but, like Sally, his dramatic arc doesn’t give him much to work with in the shadow of the bigger story (the impending WW II). The true heart and soul of the show is the budding romance between the boarding house owner, Fraulein Schneider (played by the outstanding Rebecca Johnson) and one of her tenants, Herr Schultz (in a strong performance, despite a questionable accent) by Curtis C. Jackson. Every scene between these two is sweet, endearing and heartbreaking. Their love is destined to be a forbidden love and the choices made are devastating, but understandable. Their relationship provides so much more depth and meaning than the former. Brava and Bravo! Finally, Nathan McHenry astounds as the Emcee at the Kit Kat Klub. In the role made famous by Joel Grey, McHenry perfectly embodies both man/woman throughout and provides pizazz and gusto in song and dance. He so easily disappears and fluctuates between genders that you’ll find yourself whispering to yourself, “Is that a man or a woman?” His debauchery hits all the right notes and he’s all over the stage—he definitely puts the “perv” in pervasive. He’s outstanding!
Cabaret checks almost all of the boxes you are looking for in a night of entertainment. The songs are excellent, the choreography is fun, but there is still a strong and powerful message to be had. Never before have I seen a show hum along so nicely before intentionally hitting a brick wall at the end. It leaves the audience stunned and not sure what to do but look around in confusion. Landis’ direction at the end is a perfect choice and wonderfully embodies what it must be like to have your whole world ripped out from under you at a moment’s notice. Depending on your situation, life can indeed be a cabaret, old chum, but, sometimes, before you even realize it, it’s over.