Review: A Genderqueer ‘Cabaret,’ at War With Itself

“Cabaret” that opened on Sunday is back The Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, deals with egregious cases of underwear problems.

This isn’t the only time this affliction has hit the 1966 musical set in a sleazy nightclub in Berlin. Indeed, it is a chronic condition. It was in 1972 when “Cabaret” first sniffed his nose, when Bob Diane films amplified eroticism and rolled stockings. Then, in 1993, five years later, when he was nearly stripped naked in a London production on Broadway, he was completely frustrated.

In that revival, Sally Bowles, the minimally talented Colin at the center of the action, was mentioned in “Don’t Tell Mama,” one of Jon Kander and Fred Ebb’s many great songs. She still wore those “lace pants,” but now she and the other KitKat girls wore very little else. The club host is no longer the weird tuxedo-wearing marionette that Joel Gray created in the original. Instead, he, played by Alan Cumming, was an SM dungeon dweller with bright red nipples peeking out from a leather harness with straps.

This is a purely modern idea about vulgarity, adapted to shock and inspire viewers who have become unresponsive to the vulgarity of the times. Shock, of course, is a losing game. “This same piece ten years from now, if we were to mount it again, would probably be very weary,” Kander himself predicted.

And since the plot still hung on the rise of Nazism circa 1930, a more contemporary perspective also included expository cabaret numbers like “Two Ladies” and naturalistic “books” that dramatize the story. ‘ undermined the show’s epochal concept of relying on clear alternations between scenes. the lives of the characters. Blurring the territories that original director Harold Prince had painstakingly distinguished, Sally, the Weimar party girl in Joe Masterloff’s book, is a negligee who is neither of these worlds. I turned into a zombie.

That’s the problem with underwear. It’s the confusion of perspective that sometimes comes from surfacing subtext and emphasizing interpretation over story. Of course, you might get something in return. It’s no surprise that the 1998 revival won four Tony Awards, ran for six years, and was revived in 2014. But strip away the social conventions that fuel the show’s crises—moderation, repression, outerwear—and you’re out of the action. Unwilling, unwilling. Shivering in the conceptual cold.

Barrington’s revival, with its deprivation and racism in it, is good for the eye, if not the drama. That’s not to say the extremes aren’t sometimes compelling and novel, like when Sally (Christa Rodriguez) sings the title track in a battered, catastrophic abandonment. (The imaginatively sleazy costume is by Rodrigo Muñoz.) And the scene in the book between widowed Hel Schultz (Richard Klein) and widowed Fraulein Schneider (Candy Buckley) , Jew and Gentile who must finally face the facts, but with graceful dignity. Do not press too hard.

But more often than not, this “cabaret” exaggerates itself, even if it’s naturally in line with the “let it live” ethos proclaimed by the host (Nick Alexander channeling Eartha Kitt). , strives to exemplify values ​​that are not a natural part of its storytelling. Even though it “celebrated queerness, centered the stories of transgender and non-binary performers, and acknowledged that many people of color were also victimized by the Nazis,” director Alan Paul wrote in the show notes. As I write) no matter how much I admire the work. , that respect cannot sum up a musical.

To be clear, I support non-traditional casting. Three of the KitKat Ensemble (as it is now called) are performed by transgender or non-binary performers (Charles Mayhew Miller, James Rhodes, Ryland Marbutt) in 1998. It helps push the revised version’s flirtation with sexual diversity in a more serious direction. That Alexander is black adds an eye-opening racial dimension. And Barrington’s new artistic director, Paul, is using casting expressively rather than just lip service.

But that’s part of the problem. The original script, and especially the song, despite the now-standard interpolations and deletions, is so strong that it continues to tell the story its own way even when the director tries to tell it his own.

Tension helps at first. When Miller, Rose, and Marbut strip off their KitKat costumes and comb their wigs while singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in tender harmonies, we see it as genderqueer instead of the evil Nazi anthem Kander. as a song of hope for the future of Ebb actually wrote. But later, when the song plays again, we are asked to take it as a deadly threat to the same characters. A variety of meanings can be argued, but the ear cannot understand both meanings.

The same strife between the author’s and director’s intentions ruins many of the book’s scenes. Sally’s relationship with American author Clifford Bradshaw (Dan Amboyer), who visits Berlin for inspiration, grows as his sexuality, repeatedly altered in different versions of the story, becomes more and more apparent. increasingly unreliable. Even the Nazis now condemn him, promoting the unintentional but equally disturbing notion that National Socialism is partly a strange phenomenon.

I think that idea could be explored, but doing so would require much greater conceptual intervention than this work offers. With only one word of him changed in the text (characters previously introduced as “he” are now introduced as “them”), there’s only so much you can do with a little unconventional casting. I’m here. Probably more will work fine.

Because the “cabaret” as it is written is not at all about personal identity. It is about mass complacency, society’s failure to wake up in time to injustice and disaster. In 1966, when the Holocaust was still recent history, Prince didn’t need a modern lens to portray its dangers or make it relevant. The period lenses worked well. Boris Aronson’s set was similar, with a giant mirror tilting eerily toward the audience, reflecting it and alluding to the story.

Barrington’s Wilson Chin’s lovely set also features mirrors, but they don’t reflect the audience, they reflect the stage. After seeing so many versions of “Cabaret” that have been stripped of the original and reconstructed from the inside out, I’m starting to think that’s the real problem. It is no longer a comment on our history, but a comment on our own history.

Until July 8th at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. barringtonstageco.org. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

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