Rep hits all the right notes in ‘Cabaret’

Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Liz Pearce star in ‘Cabaret’ at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The divine decadence of Weimar Berlin’s darkly hyper-sexualized nightclub scene is brought jarringly to life in the Rep’s Mainstage stunning production of “Cabaret.” Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs and choreographs this superb piece of theater; both the narrative story, with triumphant performances by the cast and the high-energy dances fill the Loretto-Hilton with a combination of morbid fascination and dread.

“Cabaret” has had a long and complex history, based on a collection of stories by Christopher Isherwood about observations of the cabaret sub-culture in Berlin in 1929-30. This was a time when the Weimar Republic was winding down and the horrific Nazi movement was gaining traction.  That work in turn was transformed into a Broadway musical, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, which opened in 1966, produced and directed by Harold Prince.

Devoted fans of the original script and the 1972 film, which earned an Oscar for Joel Grey as the demonic Emcee, will notice some differences in the present incarnation of the show (the frightened Jewish girl portrayed by Marissa Berenson has been eliminated and certain dramatic plot twists are handled differently). But the overall story, which combines eroticism, free expression and the creeping menace of Nazism remain intact.  This production packs many powerful punches.

Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is well cast as Clifford Bradshaw, the young American novelist with acute writer’s block, through whose eyes the action unfolds.  Liz Pearce nails the role of the free-spirited English cabaret superstar Sally Bowles, who is as wildly impulsive and unpredictable as Clifford is seemingly staid and introverted.  Under Milgrom’s deft direction, Clifford and Sally are drawn into a star-crossed relationship, one of cynical convenience for Sally and of authentic affection for Clifford.

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The naive and clueless Clifford is easily seduced by the over-the-top atmosphere at the Kit Kat Club in Berlin, a smoke and sin-filled cabaret where sensuous dancers often double as male or female prostitutes.  Clifford, whose bisexual inclinations are revealed almost casually in this version, is tempted equally by the attractive and aggressively seductive dancers who use stand-up telephones at each table to invited patrons to “join me for a drink.”

Clifford rents a flat from Fraulein Schneider, an elegant German woman who has become aware of a clicking biological clock, and who has a budding romance with Jewish produce vendor Herr Schultz (Michael Marotta).  Mary Gordon Murray is affecting and credible in her portrayal of this proud and practical but never cynical woman. She takes pity on the almost penniless Clifford, hoping that he will become a successful and wealthy novelist like Ernest Hemingway.

While the various characters sort out their individual goals and intertwined relationships, the menace of the Nazi Party begins to grow like mold on the damp and dingy walls of the Kit Kat Klub.  The black, white and red Nazi armbands begin to appear on the characters who at first seemed genuinely friendly. We watch Clifford recoil when trusted comrade Ernst Ludwig (Blake Ellis) removes his topcoat to expose a swastika armband. Ludwig lamely tells Clifford, “If you were a German, you would understand.”

The sensitive and intelligent Clifford loses his naive innocence and becomes increasingly alarmed over the growing Nazi contagion that will soon take over Germany and crush the Weimar democratic experiment.  Sally Bowles, caught up in her hedonistic frenzy, makes no time to read newspapers or pay any attention to “politics.”  She even remains oblivious when the Nazis taunt Fraulein Schneider and her Jewish lover, striking fear into her heart and triggering denial on the part of Schultz.  “This whole Nazi thing will blow over,” Schultz believes, as did, too, many German Jews as the Nazis began to rise.

Holding the entire production together is the crucial part of The Emcee, who is portrayed with stunning skill by Nathan Lee Graham in an award-worthy performance.  The Emcee narrates the unfolding story from when the Kit Kat Klub was a “happening place” to its descent into political corruption, which would eventually bring about its ruin.  A special shout-out to Angela Wendt, the costume designer, who decks out The Emcee in some dazzling costumes, including a solid gold three-piece suit and a sexually ambiguous black-and-white harlequin outfit.

The songs and dances are consistently powerful, especially the bone-chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the deeply disturbing “If You Could See Her With My Eyes,” and of course, the title number, “Come to the Cabaret,” belted out with pathos and gusto by Pearce’s Sally Bowles.

The Rep has selected a disturbing but dazzling season opener for its 2013-2014 season.  Do not miss it.  Be sure to come to the cabaret, old chum!