Signature Theatre’s production of Cabaret () will no doubt please those who regard it as one of their favorite musicals — as well as those who just can’t get enough of cabaret, the genre. After all, many in this show’s parade of songs by Kander and Ebb have become cabaret standards. They’re some of musical theater’s best treasures, and Signature treats them as such.
But those troubled by the show, chiefly its story, will be dismayed and disturbed by Joe Masteroff’s nearly 50-year-old book, based on Christopher Isherwood’s original stories published in 1939. The problem isn’t the fact that the rise of Nazi Germany put a kibosh on a period in history that was remarkably culturally diverse and sexually liberated, but that the musical portrays this progressive Weimar Republic era in a somewhat sensationalistic, stereotypical, naive way. The story often turns on a dime — sometimes literally at Signature, with Misha Kachman’s turntable-centered set — spinning from scenes of frothy, low-brow comedy to serious, heart-wrenching drama to interludes conveying bored bemusement — and then back again. If the whiplash doesn’t provoke mental motion-sickness, then you have a stronger constitution than me — or you were wise and focused on the songs and the production.
Director James Gardiner does right by Kander and Ebb, casting a fine crop of actors and musicians who keep you interested and entertained throughout. Wesley Taylor makes an amusing, unabashedly sexual Emcee, seemingly willing to do anything to make sure you have a good time. Barrett Wilbert will also bowl you over as cabaret star Sally Bowles, though not at first. Her charm is gradual as she purposefully holds back, displaying her talent like a flower that doesn’t reach full bloom, naturally, until her showstopping performance of the emotionally bittersweet title anthem. In the role of American writer Clifford Bradshaw, Gregory Wooddell is suitably charismatic and multi-dimensional.
Gardiner deserves plaudits for his efforts to make Masteroff’s story sing too, most notably by casting two of D.C.’s best stage actors, Rick Foucheux and Naomi Jacobson, as the Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. Neither actor was heretofore known as a singer, but their singing is more than serviceable. It is their skill in acting that makes you feel for these two secular-minded fiances as they realize that the country’s rising anti-Semitism makes their interfaith relationship impossible.
It’s a shocking, sad, traumatic turn of events, the whole rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism, but also one that isn’t really explored in the kind of depth it deserves. It’s only casually referenced until two-thirds into the play’s long runtime of roughly 140 minutes. It’s at this point that we learn Ernst Ludwig (a commanding Bobby Smith) and Fraulein Kost (a captivating Maria Rizzo), two previously sympathetic characters, both affiliated with the Kit Kat Club, are actually Nazi sympathizers. This despite shady dealings — Ludwig is a smuggler, Kost is a prostitute — that are seemingly antithetical to moralistic Nazi politics. But the show barely pauses long enough to ponder the discrepancy, instead making a hasty retreat out of such provocative yet precarious psychological muck and returning once again to rather shallow comedic waters, mining more easy laughs from portrayals of vain, flamboyant show people and parodies of queer identities and alternative lifestyles. As genuinely cute and funny as “Two Ladies” is, for example, this choreographed romp among the Emcee, a cabaret girl and a cabaret boy in drag is too flippant to shed light on what it all might mean — for them, specifically, but for us as well. Is polyamory all just a silly, childish notion, a joke? If so, why was it seen as such a threat to even some of those, such as Fraulein Kost, who actually dabbled in it?
Cabaret wants you to laugh and cry, or lament — but not think or reflect too hard on any of it.
Cabaret runs to June 28 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets are $40 to $95. Call 703-820-9771 or visit signature-theatre.org.
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