“There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies…and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany…and it was the end of the world.” This is Clifford Bradshaw’s final line in the musical “Cabaret,” currently being presented at Serenbe Playhouse through Aug. 27. He is speaking not only of his personal experience, but of the end of the Weimar Republic and the approaching darkness of the Nazi era. The time is 1931.
You can experience that scary, exhilarating, sensuous moment by entering the time capsule that Serenbe has created; you’re outdoors, yet the audience, on both sides of the raised stage, is somehow enclosed in a hothouse atmosphere of frenzied decadence. I love the way the boys and girls of the Kit Kat Klub casually saunter around in the audience, as if to say, “You can’t escape; you’re here with us,” even as the apocalypse approaches. You won’t want to escape; get your tickets now.
Perhaps you can deduce that I liked the show. You’re almost correct: I was overpowered by it. In a summer of brilliant musicals, Serenbe’s “Cabaret” is the coup de grâce. When Act I ended, I turned to a friend, a professional actor, and said, “This is inspired.” He agreed, and so did the sold-out audience.
I hope you’re somewhat familiar with this show because it’s at once complex and easy to follow. The famous 1972 movie made bona fide stars of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey; they both won Oscars. The current show is based on New York’s brilliant 1998 Roundabout Theatre Company’s production, which is the lovechild of London’s Donmar Warehouse West End 1993 revival, directed by Sam Mendes. The Broadway show premiered in 1966—clearly ahead of its time, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff.
It’s all derived from author Christopher Isherwood’s reminiscences of this era in his novel “Goodbye to Berlin” and “The Berlin Stories.” “Cabaret” is based on people he knew and events he experienced. In particular the character of Sally Bowles (played here by Broadway’s Molly Tynes, in an extraordinary performance) is based on a British girl he knew who worked at a Berlin nightspot.
In brief, a young American would-be novelist named Cliff Bradshaw (Lee Osorio) arrives in Berlin and meets a friendly young German named Ernst Ludwig (Edward McCreary), who directs him to a boardinghouse owned by Fräulein Schneider (a luminous performance by Heidi Cline McKerley). Cliff and she haggle gently over the rent, but she shrugs and says “So What?” This is a jewel of a song in a musical full of jewels: “For the sun will rise and the moon will set, and you learn how to settle for what you get; it will all go on if we’re here or not, so who cares, so what?” It’s a succinct definition of existentialism, if you’d like one.
Cliff and Sally become roommates—and more. There are other tenants at the Fräulein’s house, most notably the highly-sexed and ultimately dangerous Fräulein Kost (Deborah Bowman, in yet another flawless performance). As you may surmise, this show is brilliantly cast. I am not going to be able to say as much as I’d like, “but I do what I can, mile by mile, inch by inch, man by man,” as Sally sings in “Mein Herr.” By the way, one might say that this is not a show for children—savvy?
Berlin in the late 1920’s and early 30’s was the wildest city on earth with all kinds of sexuality, drugs, and lewd behavior not only tolerated but encouraged. In no person is this “divine decadence” more evident than the Emcee (Brian Clowdus). Mr. Clowdus is also the show’s director and is here playing his dream role. He savors every moment; he befriends and seduces the audience from his first “Ladies and Gentlemen!” and directs most of the action onstage. He sings (extremely well), he dances, he owns the stage. It’s a personal triumph.
But he does not do it alone. “Even the orchestra is beautiful,” he says, and it is. Music director Chris Brent Davis and his musicians, aided by the superb sound design of Adam Howarth, are perfection. They sound at least as good as a Broadway pit orchestra—maybe better. Lighting designer Kevin Frazier has done wonders for the ambience—which is already out of the park. The place even smells seductive: light incense or perfumed cigarettes (no worries—no real tobacco cigarettes) are around. Bubba Carr’s choreography is sinuous and hypnotic—his dancers make it all look so easy. Erik Teague’s costumes are sexy and glorious. Associate director Ryan Oliveti has no doubt been invaluable in this project.
On opening night the cast took the stage with the energy of a caged feline set free. The esprit de corps was palpable: This show is clearly a labor of love for many people. It’s funny, touching, raunchy, joyous, and sobering.
Perhaps the loveliest relationship of the evening is the one between Fraülein Schneider and her Jewish suitor Herr Schultz (Robert Wayne), as they enjoy a September romance. Mr. Wayne has long been a fine singer; but when it becomes apparent that the Nazi influence forbids their marriage and he must move, his faith that everything will still work out is heartbreaking.
Ms. McKerley’s rendition of “What Would You Do?” is a truly emotional moment for the audience. I didn’t know this talented performer could sing; she can.
I haven’t said enough about Lee Osorio’s fine Cliff; or Mr. McCreary’s Ernst; and especially the captivating Ms. Tynes as Sally: She truly does it all; she’s even an aerialist! Go and fall in love.
The great cast includes Brian Jordan, Lily Dickinson, Brady Dunn, Kendra Johnson, Imani Joseph, Taryn McFarthing, Shannon Murphy, Jordan Patrick, Hayley Platt, Casey Shuler, Terrence Smith, Kenny Tran, and Madison Welch.
I’ve seen five different professional productions of Cabaret, from the Fox Theatre to New York’s Studio 54, and this is my favorite. But “don’t take my word for it,” as the Emcee says; just go.
For tickets and information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.