‘Cabaret’ at Virginia Wesleyan University is a dark take on the heady musical – The Virginian-Pilot
Hedonists unite! What good is it to be alone in your room this weekend when Virginia Wesleyan University performs “Cabaret,” the heady musical that crowned the careers of Joel Gray as the ogling emcee and Liza Minnelli as the lithesome Sally Bowles?
It was, of course, the indelible 1972 film, directed by Bob Fosse with music by John Kander and Fred Ebb. VWU’s version is the 1998 reboot of the 1966 Broadway musical directed by Hal Prince with the addition of three of the film’s best musical numbers added to Joe Masteroff’s earlier book. This is the wonder of adaptations. They ripple in time, away from their original source, but can also “come back” with the revival of a play using film music that did not exist when the play came on stage.
The genealogy of “Cabaret” is more complicated with its late 1920s origins, all significant to its changing essence and reception. (It’s not, as many know, mere hedonism, and the VWU take is decidedly dark.) The series’ ancestor, Christopher Isherwood, was a British gay/bi writer, as was the character Cliff Bradshaw ( in our VWU musical, played charmer Jacob Underwood). Isherwood moved to Berlin just as the Nazi Party was taking and consolidating control. His diaries turned into short stories and a short story, “Goodbye Berlin”, then “Berlin Stories”.
These stories were adapted into the play “I Am a Camera” by John Van Druten, who became a film of the same name. The next change was a musical (finally called “Cabaret”, 1966, and starring Grey). The iconic film version with Gray and Minnelli followed. The 1998 revival featured Alan Cumming (now of “Masterpiece Mystery!”) as emcee. This is what keeps literary critics in business, with half a dozen articles written about this development. But it is important, for reasons yet to come.
Today, different genres – print, stage, film – wield different tools. The film is known for its combination of scenes from the violent streets of Berlin with numbers performed in the torrid and amoral atmosphere of the cabaret. The film puts all of its musical numbers on the Kit Kat Club stage, except for a Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which takes place in a Berlin beer garden.
The stage and film musicals feature the boarding house world where Cliff and (later in the play) Sally live together. But our VWU musical features a different second couple (from the movie), a plot convention designed to better delineate the most important “first” couple, Cliff and Sally.
Our second couple are landlady Fraulein Schneider (Erin Andrews) and her Jewish grocer/beau Herr Schultz (Elias Kenworthy), who both perform admirably in their singing and acting duties, including songs that were cut in the movie. As the political situation worsens in Berlin, Schneider loses his temper when it comes to marrying a Jew, despite his assurances that he is also “a German” like everyone else. Our main couple, Cliff and Sally, also have their issues. The two are promiscuous, and Cliff worries about Sally’s obliviousness to the political events surrounding her. Sally becomes pregnant by either Cliff or her former Kit Kat Club boss, Max (Criofan Shaw). Will the couple become a family, especially with Sally’s relentless show biz addiction?
The world of the boarding house in “Cabaret” is sometimes haunted, in our version, by Kit Kat Emcee (newly graduated Michael McOsker, starring in the show). He spies on his scenes, invisible to the characters but very visible to the audience, perhaps an innovation of director Travis Malone, a theater teacher. And when all is said and done, the Kit Kat Klub is the heart of this and all productions, from the tempting “Willkommen” to the penultimate number “Cabaret”. It’s here that the emcee has to seduce us (McOsker does) with the help of his black lace ladies in briefs and scantily-clad male dancers, Victor (John Post) and Bobby (Cory Steiger), who both recently starred in Norfolk’s Little Theater ‘Pippin’. Also from “Pippin” we have Maryanne Kiley, here playing Ernst Ludwig, the first German Cliff meets upon arrival. It’s Ludwig who arranges for him to teach the Germans English and smuggle luxury goods from Paris by train, which goes well until the big reveal: Ludwig is wearing a cross armband. swastika that Cliff hadn’t suspected. Cliff’s horror is immediate; Sally doesn’t, and that’s the rub.
The ensemble members and master of ceremonies quickly embrace the new political reality, and Nazi armbands come out for them as well. In Act 2, the offending Jews are mentioned by Ludwig (who warns Schneider not to marry his Jewish grocer) and by the master of ceremonies in his iconic number with the gorilla (also known from the film: “If you could see her “, ending with “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”
As performed by McOsker, with an echoing sound effect, there is no doubting the political stance of the (pro-Nazi) emcee character. The scene, however, offers another interpretive route not taken, which could have added even more richness to the performance. It has been convincingly argued by critics such as Steven Belletto (in a 2008 article titled “‘Cabaret’ and the Anti-Fascist Aesthetics”, that the emcee can be played both ways: pro or (secretly) anti-fascist, Gray choosing the In an article by fellow critic Terri Gordon, Gray called it “anti-Semitism.” Sophia Kaminaris’ Sally Bowles also suffers from a somewhat rigid characterization. good take on “Maybe This Time”, we’re not made to feel much empathy with her elsewhere. Minnelli, perhaps unfairly benefiting from her mother Judy Garland’s lost soul persona, still manages to make us worry about Sally.
Special congratulations go to Annie O’Shea as Fraulein Kost, the boarding house prostitute, for singing an entire number in German, and kudos for the courage of this whole young cast to tackle this work aesthetically and ethically demanding.
My position on the great ethical challenges of life?
I will quote the immortal words of Sally Bowles in the song “Cabaret”: “And as for me, and as for me, I made my decision at Chelsea, when I go, I go like Elsie.
Crush of the weekend
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Watch the show to see what that means.
Page Laws is Dean Emeritus of Nusbaum Honors College at Norfolk State University. [email protected]
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Virginia Wesleyan University, Susan S. Goode Fine and Performing Arts Center, 5817 Wesleyan Drive, Virginia Beach
Tickets: $15. Discounts available for students, seniors, and military