A 'beautiful life'

Center Stage's Cabaret is in top form
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  November 12, 2008

In the context of today's new political dawn, Cabaret, the Kander and Ebb musical about 1930 Berlin, is like one of those silly horror movies that couples go to for an excuse to cling together and shriek. Isn't it great that the mayhem isn't happening to us is the unspoken message.

Center Stage is doing the 1966 Broadway musical made famous by the 1972 film, which starred Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey as the spooky emcee. The West Kingston company, directed and choreographed by Russell M. Maitland, is in top form with it — edgy and bawdy, not holding back.

Cabaret is based on Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories, which also informed the 1951 play I Am a Camera. To convey the heedless hedonism of the time, which allowed the National Socialists to come to power, Joe Masteroff's book for the musical uses the metaphor — and explicit references — to a party. Everybody is just out for a good time and waiting for the inevitable moment when the parents return to break things up. In this case, the grown-ups are the Nazis, who were elected in sizable numbers to the Reichstag that year.

We are at the Kit Kat Club, with its name glowing hotly above running white lights. Barely clad young women, gartered and seductive, and men in garish makeup and suspendered shorts mill about and flirt in this den of decadence. Amplifying the tone is the emcee (Maitland): "Leave your troubles outside," he invites. "In here, life is beautiful!"

Wandering in is Clifford Bradshaw (Preston Lawhorne), a young American wannabe novelist who has drifted from London to Paris to Berlin in search of a life worth writing about. Befriending him is the amiable Ernst Ludwig (Brad W. Kirton), in need of English lessons, and thus begins Cliff's introduction to the seemingly innocent side of Berlin.

Cliff is passive, in search of his identity, like Germany itself after the humiliation of having to pay World War I reparations. Representing another aspect of this milieu is cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Emily Woo Zeller), a young English expat getting by on beauty and charm. She's learned to do whatever she needs to in order to survive, whether that's sleeping with the nightclub manager or, when she is fired, showing up at Cliff's cheap boardinghouse unasked, to move in with him.

The songs here capture all the energy and spirit but also some thoughtful moods in songs that didn't make it into the film. To use the emcee as an example, in addition to the vaguely sinister introduction "Willkommen" and the comical "Two Ladies" and "The Money Song," the theatrical version has him singing the meditative "I Don't Care Much," which captures his and his element's moral vacuousness.

On a similar note, some songs in the stage version fill out the characters of Frauline Schneider (Trudi Miller), Cliff's widowed landlady, and Herr Schultz (Ray Richardson), an elderly boarder who courts her with fruit from the market he runs. The two actors make this an especially sweet aspect of this story, rather than the digression it might have been.

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