September 18th, 2014

Off the Wall Theatre, “Cabaret”

Wednesday night, September 17th, we went to the opening performance of Off The Wall Theatre’s production of “Cabaret.”

As we expected, this was a significantly darker interpretation than others we have seen, and there was very much good and original in it. Unfortunately, the idea to push the show as far into the darkness as possible resulted in a weak and unsatisfying ending.

The Off the Wall’s small storefront space is an ideal venue for this show, as it is nothing if not intimate, and can easily resemble a run-down nightclub. One of the first innovations was the Master of Ceremonies, or “Emcee” as listed in the program (Jeremy C. Welter). Frequently, the Emcee is an almost demonic figure, gleefully presiding over the downward slide of society no matter what depravity it is currently manifesting. In this production, the Emcee is more realistic, a smarmy person who’s the front man for a sleazy concern, and is as much acted upon as acting.

Laura Monagle as Sally Bowles was fine in the main, giving us a character that was about equal parts tawdry glamor and vulnerability, until the production degenerated in the second act.

Claudio Parrone Jr. was good in the role of Clifford Bradshaw, the callow American, and brought some very good power and sensibility to the role, although his incomprehensible hairstyle and non-period facial hair were distracting.

Marilyn White and Lawrence Lukasavage played Fraulein Schneider, Cliff’s landlady, and Herr Schultz, her tenant who has tender feelings toward her. Portraying the characters as aging, yet not yet entirely old, gave an added poignancy to their part of the story, which is frequently done as a December-December romance. White’s performance of “So What?” was particularly good, expressing defiance instead of resignation, which makes her eventual surrender in “What Would You Do?” much more effective.

The performance followed the familiar arc through the first act, with enthusiastic and well-performed numbers by the Kit-Kat “Girls,” “Boys” and the band. (The participation of band member Glen Quarrie in “Two Ladies” was one of the show’s comic highlights.) There was a suitable, but not excessive, amount of “kink”: male nudity in “Don’t Tell Mama” is the most shocking bit of that type. There is some added edge as well. Somewhat daringly, the ensemble does “Money” wearing Hassidic hats with attached earlocks.

Changes come in at the start of the second act. In the first number, the one in which the Emcee cross-dresses as one of the Girls, he mocks Hitler. Nazi thugs break up the dance, the club, and rough up the Emcee. That, plus a nod from club owner Max (Paul Pfannensteil), causes the Emcee’s political shift in the next number, “If You Could See Her.” Instead of the usual monkey-mask gag, the Emcee uses the number to abuse and degrade the modest waitress, Gretel (Sandy Lewis). This was the most emotionally brutal scene of the show, and kudos to Ms. Lewis for a heart-wrenching portrayal of the waitress’ confusion when she’s entrapped on stage, her gamely trying to play along, and her fear and eventual total humiliation as the Emcee strips her clothes off. This was utterly real and believable. This was one of a number of pieces in the second act where the audience did not applaud at the end, not because it wasn’t well done, but just because it didn’t seem right.

The Emcee’s downward spiral continues as he becomes a witness to Cliff’s brutal beating at the club by Max, Ernst Ludwig (Robb Preston), and other Nazis. The following song, “I Don’t Care Much,” was delivered in the wheedling fragmented tones of a broken man.

One bit of irony that was present but underplayed was Cliff’s dictatorial position in the climactic argument with Sally. He’s made his decision as to what is best and attempts to order Sally to follow him whether she wants to or not, ignoring the fact that he is doing exactly what the Nazis are trying to do to Germany.

I wish I could say that Ms. Monagle’s portrayal of anguish after the breakup with Cliff was as effective as that of Ms. Lewis. In the first place, her otherwise decent acting chops deserted her, and she spent much of the last portion of the act crouched in a single catatonic posture. Her singing voice became the same halting whine that we heard from the Emcee. This made her big number, “Cabaret” hard to listen to in more ways than one. It was also emotionally hard. I kept waiting for her to pull herself together, for the semblance of the old Sally Bowles to make an appearance. It never happened. This, and the next point, I blame on director Dale Gutzman.

In the second place, it’s just wrong. Admittedly, in the real world, a woman who had had a traumatic rupture with her lover on top of an abortion would probably collapse. However, Sally Bowles is a character to whom the epithet “irrepressible” is frequently attached, and she wouldn’t show it if she were dying. The show must go on. Having both Sally and the Emcee break down robs the show of its ultimate irony, which is, although, as Cliff says, the party in Berlin is over, there are many who refuse to admit it.

The show essentially petered out, with the Emcee/train conductor delivering a broken version of “Wilkommen,” barely above a whisper. The rest of the cast, now garbed as prisoners on the way to the camps, filed out. The lights went down. There was no curtain call.

It is this, in chief, that I object to. The show ends with a whimper, but no bang. The Weimar ‘bang’ may have been over, but the echoes lingered on. Clubs and cabarets continued in Berlin as long as the war permitted, although toned down to Nazi tastes, and one expects that Sally Bowles, corklike, would have eventually floated safely away. To suggest, as this production does, that everyone in Germany was miserable by play’s end, although it may prefigure what was to come, makes it a historical lie; whereas the more conventional interpretation, theatrical as it may be, is closer to the spiritual truth.

Ironically, the program contains this notation: “The action of the play takes place in the memory of Clifford Bradshaw while he was dancing with Sally Bowles at the end of the world.” However bitter Cliff’s memories of Sally might have been, after he leaves the ball, she should still be dancing. In this show, she wasn’t.

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