Come Hear the Music Play
Go downstairs to the McManus stage at London’s Grand Theatre and it looks very much like a seedy bar in 1931 Berlin. But listen to some of the words and they sound like Twitter today. In this excellent production of Cabaret, director Dennis Garnhum has immersed his audience in the hedonistic, sensual world of Sally Bowles and Cliff Bradshaw. And yet, we hear the evil anti-Semitic prejudice and the spread of nationalism and Nazi white supremacy surrounding Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz.
I’ve seen many productions of Cabaret, from amateur theatre, to a college production, to the stages of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. But Garnhum’s use of the dark and crowded McManus theatre has made Cabaret an all-new experience. Audience members are actually sitting in the bar, having drinks, while the actors climb atop tables to perform.
On arrival, we are met by one of the Kit Kat Klub entertainers, checking our ID before he lets us in. We walk through a cluttered, darkened hall, right past the star’s dressing room where she gives us a friendly wave as she touches up her make-up. We are shown to the bar where drinks can be purchased and then we are seated. But we are warned to please remove our drinks from the tables whenever the cast performs on them. All the actors remain completely in character as they move about the night club. Their excellent improv skills are apparent as they talk to the audience before and during the show.
Cabaret is the story of Sally Bowles, a young English woman who is earning her living in Berlin, singing and dancing in the night club, along with a lascivious emcee and assorted dancers. An American writer, Cliff Bradshaw arrives in Berlin. He’s had affairs with men in the past, but Sally flirts with him, eventually moving into his room at the boarding house. Sally reports that she is pregnant and it might be Cliff’s baby, so he wants to stay with her and raise the child. With the rise of Nazism, he plans to take Sally back to Pennsylvania. In a side plot, their landlady, Fraulein Schneider, despite being in her senior years, falls in love with widower Herr Schultz, and they decide to marry. But Schultz is a Jew. Fraulein Schneider is threatened for seeing him and sadly ends the relationship.
This production hinges on the brilliant, powerful acting of the four key characters in the two relationships.
Tess Benger perfectly embodies the decadent Sally. As Benger belts “Maybe This Time” perched atop the piano, her anguish over her relationship is palpable. Later, when Benger sings a frenzied rendition of the title song, you can see the realization coming over her that she will be stuck in a squalid night club forever. Her compelling and intense singing leaves an emotional impact on the audience.
James Daly is fascinating as Cliff. You feel his frustration when his writing is interrupted, but he appears to be truly captivated by Sally. Daly is very comfortable in the role, and his acting is totally natural.
Charlotte Moore, a grande dame of Canadian theatre, is completely captivating as Fraulein Schneider. She instinctively shows that a warm heart beats beneath her sometimes gruff exterior. W. Joseph Matheson is a charming Herr Schultz. You feel his warmth and enthusiasm for life in the beginning, and then see it sapped out of him as loses a chance for happiness in old age. Moore and Matheson have excellent chemistry. You want them to be happy together, and of course, it’s heartbreaking to see them torn apart by politics.
This immersive and audience-inclusive presentation of Cabaret makes such perfect sense that you wonder why it isn’t done this way regularly. The look and feel of a gritty night club surrounds you. All the actors play different musical instruments at different times (some better than others) adding to the atmosphere.
The night club tables double as the rooming house. Sally decides to move in with Cliff; he is upset, trying to discourage her. She climbs onto our table which becomes the bedroom, and flops down with a pillow and blanket. On opening night, she struggled with fluffing the blanket to cover herself up, so I reached over to smooth it and tuck her in. The angry Cliff ad libbed “Don’t help her!”
But most fascinating is the realization that even though we have been carried back 88 years to Nazi Germany, we hear the same horrific rhetoric today. When the beautiful ballad “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is contrasted with the swastika on the red arm band, we are given a shocking reminder. The final heart-wrenching scene of cattle cars taking human beings to death camps should put an end to present-day white supremacy, racism and prejudice.
Tickets are very limited; call now and don’t miss this very poignant Cabaret.
Cabaret continues at the McManus Stage, Grand Theatre, London until May 11. Note: Extended to May 18
Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit www.grandtheatre.com.
Photo: Right – Tess Benger as Sally Bowles. Left – The cast of Cabaret. Photos by Dahlia Katz.
Cabaret – 2019
Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John VanDruten and the stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Dennis Garnhum
Choreographed by Cameron Carver
Musical Direction by Wayne Gwillim
Performed by Tess Benger, James Daly, Charlotte Moore, W. Joseph Matheson, Lawrence Libor, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, Margaret Thompson, Isaac Bell, Phoebe Hu.
McManus Stage, Grand Theatre, London
April 9 to May 11, 2019
Note: Extended to May 18
Reviewed by Mary Alderson