Nothing quite sizzles or captures the imagination like an iconoclastic vision that is both dark and brightly alluring, tantamount to a rainbow that emanates from an ominous overcast. Led by an eloquent and flirtatious Master of Ceremonies, the expressionistic allure of “Cabaret” revolves around the lightening-rod tapestry of sexio-social freedom and the political unrest in 1929-30 Berlin, Germany. Caught in this web of precarious enticement are British singer and resident performer of the Kit Kat Klub, Sally Bowles, and her love interest, an American novelist by the name of Clifford Bradshaw. Together, and with the characters around them, whose cumulative strings are seemingly pulled by the Emcee, the expected is unexpected in the engrossing story of “Cabaret.”
The musical, now in its 50th anniversary, has more or less been a hit for each of those years, all the way back to 1966 when Joe Masteroff wrote the book, John Kander scored the music, and Fred Ebb penned the lyrics. It went on to win the Tony Award for “Best Musical” in 1967 and subsequently earned several stamps of recognition as the best “Broadway Revival” – most notably in 1998 when Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall co-directed.
As it so happens, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2016 touring production of “Cabaret,” directed brilliantly by B.T. McNicholl, and playing at the Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, CA, through August 21st, is largely based on the 1998 rendition and features a fantastic cast of its own to boast about.
The linchpin of the entire spectacle is the Emcee, who is portrayed by the über-talented Randy Harrison. From the very second Harrison saunters onto the stage, he is the extroverted authority on all subjects – including the everyday and risqué variety. His German accent and saucy punctuation of words is meticulous enough to come across as effortless; and, Harrison’s acting is so versatile that one will be laughing at his over-the-top forays into hedonism one moment while empathizing with his sardonic analysis of human prejudice in “If You Could See Her” only a short period later.
Unlike the Emcee, whose reality in the underworld is a unilateral one, Sally Bowles is a live-and-let-live singer with progress on her mind all the while being a woman who is nearly drawn to a quaint life of marriage and motherhood. Andrea Goss balances the complicated character’s divergent motivations with grace, whether she is portraying the energetic whimsy of Sally with a number called “Don’t Tell Mama,” or she is conveying her character’s rejection of white-picket-fenced banality in the titular song.
Benjamin Eakeley brings a suitably soft-spoken and straitlaced demeanor to his All-American character, Clifford Bradshaw, who, as a writer with dreams in a foreign country, is intoxicated by the decadence of a new land before falling for its primary female constituent, Sally Bowles. Unfortunately, notwithstanding his ability to expertly bargain with the landlord of his boardinghouse (Fräulein Schneider), Bradshaw does not fair particularly well in the story. He becomes an abettor of unlawful smuggling (unwittingly) for Hitler-sympathizer Ernst Ludwig (played with naturalistic precision by Patrick Vaill) and a failed expectant father after Sally decides that having a child isn’t for her. That said, however one might feel for Bradshaw, Eakely navigates the travails of his character in such a way that the audience can commiserate with his misfortunes.
Refreshingly, Fräulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran) and Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson), fruit shop owner and boardinghouse occupant, function as a counterpoint to the wantonness of the Kit Kat Klub. Their innocent interplay with one another, which is bereft of shock but heavy on sanguine tenderheartedness, produces some of the best scenes in the musical. This is underscored even more so when their tandem chasteness is juxtaposed against the passionately promiscuous apartment leaser, Fräulein Kost, whose comedic characterization is flawlessly carried out by accordion-player Alison Ewing, who is also double-cast as Fritzie in the ensemble.
Individually, Cochran is wonderfully believable as Fräulein Schneider, who is fortified by her own will to survive, and do the best with what is given to her even if it means deciding against her best interests so she could be charitable. Through it all, Cochran never embodies the middle-aged spinster with too much cynical hardheadedness; in fact, it’s quite the opposite because we can clearly see the amount of love Schneider is not only capable of giving, but being vulnerable enough to receive.
The lucky receiver and giver of this endearment is Herr Schultz, who is played with an almost heartbreaking sweetness by the venerable Mark Nelson. With just Nelson’s facial expressions alone, we can gather that, despite being wary of his romantic chances, Schultz’s heart has been longingly set on Schneider for some time. The poignancy of the character is lush with feeling as we see the beautifully modest way in which he lovingly conducts himself around Schneider, offering the best of what he has to her – such as the finest and most delicious pineapples.
Suffice it to say, the sensitivity that Nelson skillfully pours into Schultz — who is the most courageous and prudent character in the musical — is a joy to watch. He is confident but, more importantly, humble in his pursuit of a woman who ultimately needs him just as much as he needs her — and that is the stuff that root-worthy stories are made of. However, when the inevitable union of Schneider and Schultz does not come to fruition, because of an indefensible persecution directed at the latter for simply being Jewish, we are reminded to never take anything for granted.
“Cabaret” is highly recommended for its ability to provoke and challenge the observer about what is real, moral, and human.
For more information about the Roundabout Theatre Company’s touring production of “Cabaret,”
and for more information about “Cabaret” showtimes and tickets at the Segerstrom Center,
go to scfta.org