Chilling 'Cabaret' skips buildup

I don’t know if it was the theater’s actual temperature or what I was watching onstage, but I had cold chills throughout Cabaret when I saw it recently at the Winspear in Dallas. Probably a combination of both.
I love Cabaret, although “love” is probably an odd word to bestow upon this “entertainment” — another odd word for this two-act musical dramatization of what certain aspects of life were like in Germany at the time it was becoming Nazi. Yes, it’s a musical, but I’ve never heard it ranked among the greatest of American musicals; the word itself almost always connotes something with a lighter side, even when it’s built on very serious material (think Sound of Music for a good example). But there is very little lightness in Cabaret; even its excursions into humor are very serious, very dark. “Edgy” is maybe today’s word for them.
And I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve seen Cabaret in various venues; this was probably my sixth. It was a production of Roundabout Theater Company, imported from New York. Very professional. Very well done. But —very, very disturbing. This one got to the heart of pre-Hitler debauchery and ugliness more quickly than the others I’d watched in various venues, including community theater and dinner theater settings as well as on professional stages. And this was a very black and ugly heart, indeed.
Contrasting example: When Dallas Theater Center, the city’s own professional troupe, staged Cabaret several years ago, it turned the Wyly Theater itself into a virtual cabaret, with some attendees seated on floor level at little tables, almost a part of the action. And its master of ceremonies — the key character — was in that production a tall, well-muscled “hunk” wearing jeans and a roll-sleeved T-shirt, rather than the shifty (and shifting) interpretation of Joel Grey, who set the all-time standard in the 1972 film.
Different, yes. But here, the master of ceremonies was, from the start, the Devil incarnate, salacious to the point of onstage pornography, which actually made some theatergoers uncomfortable; the Kit-Kat Klub’s dancers, rather than being merely suggestive, mimicked a much older profession right from the start.
Another example: When I saw Cabaret for the first time, Act 1 ended with a young boy in Nazi youth uniform strolling to the front of the stage, softly singing Tomorrow Belongs to Me; he was gradually joined by a children’s chorus, escalating  in volume so that no one could possibly miss what was to come, leaving viewers stunned when the intermission lights came on.
Here, the song was delivered twice, first with the master of ceremonies listening to a boy soprano on an old record player singing the same song, but ending with the leering MC’s own loud, growling “TO ME?” It was truly anticlimactic when a male soloist was joined in the song by a few others — all adults — as the first act ended.
And at the conclusion of Act 2, that same actor was somehow strangely transformed; when he pulled off his MC costume, he lost all bravado and dropped pleadingly to the floor, making a puddle in the ill-fitting concentration camp clothing he now wore — with a yellow star on his chest. This was an ending that startled, because it was not only so surprisingly new; to those who had already seen this play before, it was so very wrong.
I fault this Cabaret for failing to provide the buildup necessary to take its viewers from something that was quietly making its presence felt at the start to the horror of real truth at the end. Because this version began with stark horror already in place, and continued with it throughout, so that the only “surprise” at play’s end was the master of ceremonies’ costume change, not the change of all Germany.
I do anticipate seeing other interpretations of Cabaret in the future. Differences, after all, are part of theater.

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