By Perry Tannenbaum
Few musicals are more fascinating, malleable, or ominous than John Kander and Fred Ebb’s tuneful Cabaret with its masterful book by Joe Masteroff, currently being produced by Davidson College Theatre Department. Lingering despair and defeat, holdovers from World War I, hover over Berlin and Germany as we make our first visit to the decadent Kit Kat Klub. In the opening “Wilkommen,” the emcee assures us that this is a place of forgetting. But the more we get to know Berlin, largely through the eyes of aspiring American novelist Clifford Bradshaw, we realize that what’s forgotten – escaped and avoided, really – are the present and the future, as the teetering Weimar Republic becomes forgotten in the wave of insanity and horror that will be Nazi Germany. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” sing the waiters and Nazi youth, not really grasping what Adolph Hitler is or the havoc he will wreak.
Yet of course, the followers of the Hitler cult are the least sympathetic of the victims here, though the fate of these dupes is suddenly more relevant after America’s disastrous 2016 election. So many of the characters drawn from the 1939 Berlin Stories of Christopher Isherwood – and altered or added to by Masteroff – charm us, tug at our sympathies, or gradually fuel our disgust and outrage. And so many are fated to be pitiful victims. Nearly all of those we care about most enjoy the intensifying benefits of Kander and Ebb’s chameleonic songwriting. In his valedictory effort after 43 distinguished years in the Davidson College Theatre Department, director Joe Gardner had plenty to sift through. Not only are Cliff, the Emcee, and Kit Kat chanteuse Sally Bowles all engaging creations, they’ve all undergone significant changes since the original 1966 Broadway premiere. Most notably, there was the all-about-Sally film version in 1972, which added two showstoppers for Liza Minnelli, “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time.” Alterations in the 1998 and 2014 Broadway revivals starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee were nearly as extensive. Now the Emcee, as a homosexual, emerged fully as a victim of the oncoming regime at the end of the show. Along the way, one of the backups for the Emcee’s risqué “Two Ladies” was changed from a Kit Kat Girl to Bobby, and Cliff became more overtly bisexual. As for Sally, the blithe Londoner became more neurotic, something of a cokehead.
Gardner’s mix-and-match version of Cabaret seems to be mostly retro, stripping the Minnelli showstoppers from the songlist and reverting to two female backups on “Two Ladies.” Cliff gave me the impression that he wished to keep his past homoerotic liaisons in Paris behind him, resisting his opportunities to cheat on Sally after she moved in with him. Where Gardner surprised me most, however, was on the emphasis this production put on the story outside the Kit Kat Klub at Fräulein Schneider’s boarding home. The doomed relationship between the warm and welcoming Schneider and her shy admirer, Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz, figured to be an inevitable weak spot for a college production. But Theo Ebarb managed to look remarkably middle-aged for a college junior as Schultz, not at all ethnically inappropriate, and junior Hannah Thigpen, though not as convincingly transformed by wig and makeup designer Clara Abernathy, was the best actress on the Duke Family Performance Hall stage on opening night.
Schneider doesn’t have the best songs for her solos, but Abernathy made a very dignified case for “What Would You Do” late in Act II when she called off her engagement to Schultz, and she nearly resuscitated the moribund “So What?” when we first met her. In between, her duets with Ebarb were both charming, a blushing humor gently squeezed from the “Pineapple Song” and a folksy German flavor infused into the waltzing “Married.” Suddenly, I could realize that Schneider was every bit as important as Sally in the original 1966 concept until we reached the title song, the most decisive closure in the story. That outcome was far from inevitable when I first beheld sophomore Ashley Behnke and her bare-shouldered pizzazz in Sally’s “Don’t Tell Mama.” A little of that aura wore off when she and her mink coat invaded Cliff’s apartment and Sally became the seductive femme fatale. There were breaks in concentration in Sally’s serene “Perfectly Marvelous” duet with Cliff, and I didn’t always hear Behnke’s words clearly, spoken or sung. Vocally, Behnke was stronger and more consistent in the climactic “Cabaret,” but just a little bit lost: I didn’t sense a firm grasp of who Sally was behind that song – or a clear take on the dramatic decisions she had just made.
Both of the male leads astonished me. With an amazingly smooth and polished voice, only slightly strained at the top of his range, junior Spencer Ballantyne was delightfully befuddled and principled as Cliff, making a perfectly marvelous impression in his only solo, “Don’t Go.” But the show was dominated in numerous ways by senior Robert Kopf as the Emcee, nearly flawless in his cynicism, his swagger, and his corruption. More than anyone else, the Emcee personifies the “end of the world” about which Cliff will eventually write. But in this production, Kopf had other assignments. From the time the show began, it was primarily Kopf who bridged the gap between the audience and the Duke stage, frequently walking across the ramps that crossed the orchestra pit toward us and inviting intimacy in a hall that normally feels remote from the stage action.
There are also two stairways in Anita J. Tripathi’s set design, one winding up to the occasional perch for a couple of musicians and the other leading straight up to an overpass with a guardrail. On or behind these steps, Kopf will often lurk sardonically as action outside the Klub unfolds – or he might appear even more ominously prowling across the overpass, one of lighting designer Greg Thorn’s spotlights reserved especially for him. Vocally, Kopf is most naughty when he sings “Two Ladies,” most roguish when he sings “Wilkommen,” and most devastating when he delivers the anti-Semitic freight of “If You Could See Her.” Yet Kopf’s stage presence is so powerful that his most chilling moments might have come when he didn’t say or sing a word, dropping the fateful brick into Schultz’s shop or making his final exit.
Technical polish was never a worry. Except for a bump here or a ring there, the sound system at the Duke was completely tamed, and while the orchestra could have been reined in at times to let lyrics through, Jacque Culpepper’s musical direction was outstanding. Tempos for the singers and musicians were never compromised. Once Gardner and his cast had jumped the hurdle of making the oldsters and their swastika-crossed love believable, Cabaret could be quite compellingly viewed with untinted glasses. With all the Hitler Youth undertones already in the script, the collegians I saw in Davidson often became an asset I’d never anticipated. Maybe senior Dakota Morlan needed more mileage on her for the whorish Fräulein Kost, or maybe not; and maybe the urbane Ernst Ludwig was more chilling when he revealed his Nazi armband because sophomore Jacob Haythorn was playing him. In some ways, the horror was enlarged.