Chilling Cabaret Demands Attention

Sam Plattus, director of Cabaret — playing now at Lyric Hall in Westville until July 15 — met us, his guests, with warmth and enthusiasm on our way into the auditorium. We found the stage filled with the cast in their attire, quiet chatter and knowing smirks abounding as they managed their preparations. Just after a hush settled over the whole room, Plattus walked to the foot of the apron.

“Today there were protests all across the country. ... It was really important to the whole cast that they were happening,” Plattus said. “I’ve learned, working on this show, that we live in a very fragile world. It looks more fragile by the day. It’s the responsibility of all of us together to make sure that the world doesn’t break.”

With that, we were bade to enjoy the show. The lights dimmed, and the opening strains of “Willkommen” filled the air.

“Leave your troubles outside!” the master of ceremonies begged us. “In here, life is beautiful!”

Cabaret, which has become a timeless play of politics, showbiz, and humanity, is timely this summer. Set among the denizens of a seedy Berlin club in the twilight of the Weimar Republic, the musical explores the dynamic layers of identity that we don and shed every day. In an era where intersectional identities are key to our navigation of life, our claims of liberty, and our pursuit of safety, the 50-year-old script — originally spawned by the free love of the ‘60s, celebrating the free love of ‘30s Berlin haunted by the specter of Nazism — painfully rhymes with 21st-century America.

In this Harpers’ production, Cabaret has been stripped down to brutal and brilliant effect. The stage is nearly bare, with a prominent Steinway down right, a two-piece drum kit in the left wing, and a smattering of furniture. Eight performers play 20 parts in a staging that virtuosically shifts from night club burlesque to transnational train car to boarding house bedroom with all the dynamism of The 39 Steps. The antique boudoir vibe of the space lends itself perfectly to the action of the stage. From the audience, I was passively invited to observe the process of the drama as it unfolded, as the curtain was never closed through the two-hour run — an eloquent device to capture the dual life of performers, as both desperate and loving people who live their lives and as the supernatural bawdy grotesques of their theatrical premises.

The story of Cabaret delicately juxtaposes the optimistic with the nihilistic. The majority of its songs are party songs declaring the triumph of hope; its naturalistic sequences are more generally uncertain, anxious, or sometimes explicitly violent and frightening. In this production, the cast lend an air of fear to even the happiest moments, and the most frightening encounters still contain the odd, but well placed, pieces of humor.

As mentioned above, every performer but two play several parts — and every part is one with layers of sexuality, class, nationality, creed, and politics. The performers’ character hopping perfectly underscores a central theme of the play: We cannot wholly know our friends, nor can we control them. The charming emcee who borrowed my hat for a moment of crowd work was the same artist who later served up a beating on behalf of the Nazi party, and the Harpers left it ambiguous whether it was the same character.

Not knowing what we ourselves are capable of, what secrets those we grow close to are harboring, is core to the show. In the final minutes when Fraulein Schneider asks us, “What would you do?” I was shaken by the burden of responsibility and fear — as the faces of the performers shifted from sympathetic looks of hope and fear to looks of dread resignation and zeal, within the same role and across roles, as if to say that crisis could change any of us.

The entire team of clowns and multi-instrumentalists are an ensemble to be reckoned with, but Jay Eddy as Sally Bowles brings down the house, twice, with “Maybe This Time” and “Life is a Cabaret.” Gabrielle Filloux is sweet and poignant as Lulu with “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in its first instance; the song returns, helmed by Brianna Bagley as Fraulein Kost, with a dreadfully different meaning. As Bagley, Jeremy Funke, Zach Fontanez, and Sammi Katz sang the song with violent resolve, I wept hot tears as the chilling performance closed the first act. Elena Adcock as Fraulein Schneider and Raphael Massie as Herr Schultz shared a touching romance that was a refreshing break from the pervading fear. Their performances were especially sympathetic and delightful. Nate Houran imbued archetypal leading man Clifford Bradshaw with the depth to make his tenderness and violence ring true and tragic.

Do not delay to see the Harpers’ Cabaret at Lyric Hall. It is a production that merits our full attention.

Cabaret runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., matinees on Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through July 15. For tickets and more information, click here.

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