Welcome obscenity

Mad Horse stages intimate, shocking Cabaret
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  August 22, 2014

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RALLY ROUND THE POLE Sally Bowles and the Emcee in a scene from Cabaret. (photo by Desiray Roy)

“Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome,” croons the ghoulish Emcee of Cabaret, and nearly sixty years after its premiere—and over eighty since the late-Weimar Berlin it excoriates—the show’s cautionary provocations still invite fascination. Many revivals into its life on stage and in film, we’re still stirred and appalled by the story of the naïve American writer, the nightclub dancer who befriends him, and her seedy, sex-and-gin-laced 1931 Berlin. This summer, the debaucheries of Cliff (Matt West), Sally (Rachel Lotstein), and the Kit Kat Klub habitués are on stage closeby, in an excellent joint production of Mad Horse and Razer Entertainment, newly formed by Ray Dumont, who directs.

Cabaret is the second edgy musical to be staged at Mad Horse in recent months, coming on the heels of Grey Gardens, also directed by Dumont. Mad Horse’s small space and this Cabaret’s simple set design make for a very intimate production, with red-draped cocktail tables set almost in the laps of the front row audience. When dancers or denizens at these close tables rustle, giggle, or whisper something titillating, it sounds like the prurience is coming from someone in our own party.

Urging all the action along here is Tommy Waltz’s stellar, deliciously dissolute Emcee, with his gallows charisma, a null sign inked on his upper arm, and a louche, poisonous sensuality. His four superb Kit Kat girls (Meredyth Dehne, Kacy Woodworth, Caroline O’Connor, and Joanna Clarke)—in their garters and torn stockings, their hair close-cropped or in pigtails, and their lips rouged like garish kewpie dolls—are now languid, now surly, now hysterical. Sometimes they look like the dancing dead, and other times—squealing, grinning, singing in baby-talk falsetto—like they’re stoned to oblivion on laughing gas and porn. They have now the sweetness of overripe fruit, now the hard, bored gazes of kids who’ve learned not to care too much or try too hard.

In contrast, Lotstein’s vivacious, mellifluous Sally is trying hard, with her wide white smile, gorgeous wardrobe, and shiny things at throat and wrists. Trying brightly to sustain her illusions, Lotstein’s Sally has flashing eyes, a savvy, songlike voice, and something desperate and sad just beneath. Her mark and friend Cliff, in West’s hands, has an endearing frankness, soft features, and a clear, unsullied tenor. He responds with a nicely measured blend of wariness, camaraderie, and sexual hello to Ernst, who first befriends Cliff, and who in Kyle Robert Dennis’s portrayal is smoothly ingratiating; a slender, cheerful cipher of a menace.

Some productions of Cabaret aim to shock with its characters’ deviance as they ignore the imminent “end of the world.” But this production shows restraint—the dancers aren’t burlesqued to the max, and the Emcee’s most bracing provocations come in widened whites of eyes, a contemptuous smile, or a whisper that skins the back of the neck. Likewise, the staging includes not just high kicks and goose steps, but some beautifully plain movement. Boardinghouse owner Fraulein Schneider (Barbara Laveault) and the Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Paul Machlin, with wrenching pathos) share some affecting stillness in the blocking of their doomed romance; and at the haunting end of the patriotic “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” sung by the ensemble in rounds, the Emcee finishes the last verse softly and alone, cracks his foot down on a chair, then claps his hands—deliberately, mockingly—but making barely a sound. His minimalist derision is breathtaking, is almost obscene.

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