I would never have thought a musical that originated in 1966, became more famous as a movie in 1972, and started as a short novel published in 1939, would feel so completely and scarily relevant in 2016. But the current run of the Roundabout Theater Company's production of Cabaret is most definitely a Cabaret for our times.
Set in 1931 Berlin, the story centers on the performers at the Kit Kat Klub and the residents of a local boarding house. The show begins before the audience is completely seated, with some of the Kit Kat Klub's performers strolling and stretching around the stage. When the lights dim, the Emcee (Randy Harrison) opens the show with that most famous of introductory songs, Willkommen, urging the audience to "leave your troubles outside....In here, life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful!"
And indeed, the orchestra is pretty good looking, and not relegated to the orchestra pit. Instead, they perform on a raised stage above the action, with some of the musicians doing double duty as cast members. The stage itself is pretty stripped down, with the main set piece being a series of doors representing the entrances and exits to the Kit Kat, the boarding house, and some trains. This minimalist set allows the audience to focus on the main characters, and also notice the characters that often hover around in the background.
Our everyman hero, American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen), has come to Berlin hoping for inspiration. After finding lodging at a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran), Cliff ventures to the Kit Kat Klub. There he becomes entranced by both a former male lover and dancer/singer Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss), who enters the show with the song "Don't Tell Mama." It's a perfect piece for Goss, who is so naturally tiny that I'm not sure that cartoonishly giant chair she sits in during the number was actually all that big.
Cliff and Sally become an unlikely couple, as she basically forces her way into his lodging and bed after she's fired from the club, and he decides to try and make a go at a "normal" life after she becomes pregnant. But neither of them is living their true selves, and it's those ideas of truth and denial that affect every character in the show.
Fraulein Schneider's relationship with Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schulz (Mark Nelson) yields two of the show's most touching numbers, "It Couldn't Please Me More," where a pineapple becomes the ultimate symbol of love, and "Married," which in a heartbreaking reprise forces the characters to admit the truth about the evil overtaking the country around them.
Herr Shulz's character gets the show's most politically charged lines — some are clearly played in direct reference to our current election madness — which resulted in some very audible and extended cheers from the audience.
Goss's Sally isn't a woman who immediately commands a room. She's very slight and flighty; one thought starting before another finishes. But as the show progresses and her situation becomes more dire, she begins to command more attention. Her rendition of the title song is a far cry from Liza Minnelli's movie version. It's filled with much more despair and anger. Life may be a cabaret, old chum, but sometimes you've got to stop the party, or you'll miss the sound of those approaching goose-steps.
After the show, some of the actors gathered for an audience Q&A, and gave some interesting insight into their characters.
Shannon Cochran spoke about the backstory she gave Fraulein Schneider, and how she felt it was able to explain some of the decisions her character makes. "I felt she was a bit ahead of her time, as she's a woman alone, in 1930...She's a woman who grew up with money, who lost it. She sees that [her relationship] can't work, that no one will get out safely. And she does what she needs to survive."
When asked about Cliff's orientation and whether being with Sally was Cliff's way to deny his own homosexuality, Lee Aaron Rosen said, "Absolutely. And he also realizes that [Sally] is far more mature and wise than he gave her credit for, but that he's playing a game every bit as much as she is."
Of the Emcee, Randy Harrison said he gave him an arc and backstory centered on addiction. He also feels the Emcee was, "a little more aware than those around him. He sees what's coming, but rather than fleeing, he just despairs."
And when asked what he felt the main takeaway an audience might get from Cabaret, Harrison said, "The potential consequences of political disengagement."
And that's a truth as important now as it was in 1930's Germany.
Cabaret is playing at the Golden Gate Theater through July 17th.