Ovation Theatre has been on a roll lately, with some fascinating productions: RENT, Something Rotten, and Once all being quite excellent while upping the game for music and dance locally. One reason I think for the sustained excellent of the music is that the members of the live band have been playing together for a number of years now, and have really gelled as a group.
I wanted to see Cabaret in part because of the interesting score, and in part because friends who saw the opening weekend recommended it. And also because it is plenty on point for the times we live in.
Cabaret is the third in a series of three works of art that were drawn in turn from real life events. The first was Christopher Isherwood’s collection of semi-autobiographical stories, Goodbye to Berlin. These stories tell of Isherwood’s experience as one of a group of ex-pat writers living in Berlin in the early 1930s.
The most memorable of the characters was Sally Bowles, inspired by cabaret dancer Jean Ross, who went on to be a leftist activist who complained that her character was drawn as sympathetic to the Nazis, when she was not.
The central incident involving Sally was also inspired by a real-life incident. Ross did indeed end up living with Isherwood briefly, and they did have to share a small bed. However, although Isherwood occasionally had sex with women, he was decidedly gay, and neither Isherwood and Ross, nor the characters Isherwood and Sally, ever got it on. Rather, Ross/Sally became pregnant by someone else (possibly a john), and Isherwood assisted her in getting an abortion, which nearly killed her.
In turn, this story and some of the others in Goodbye to Berlin were adapted by John van Druten into the Broadway play, I Am A Camera, which was then further modified and adapted into the musical, Cabaret.
Along the way, the homosexual content was diluted, with the Isherwood character, now named Clifford Bradshaw, portrayed as essentially heterosexual, but with a likely homosexual affair with a man in London in his past.
Thus, Clifford himself impregnates Sally, and it is her choice to eventually end the pregnancy without Clifford’s involvement.
Other parts of the original do survive. The idea of the cabaret as a microcosm of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, the gender and sexuality fluid subculture of Berlin nightlife, the way that the average person felt trapped between what was happening in politics and the need for survival, and so on.
I’m not going to rehash any more of the plot here, but do want to make some comments on the production itself.
First, I liked the decision to put the band on a platform above and slightly behind the stage. While they weren’t spotlighted most of the time, it was nice to see the actual musicians for a change. My only quibble with the music was that, at least where we were, the mix was a bit off. It needed a bit more from the keys and banjo, and a more balanced sound from the bass, which tended to resonate on some notes more than others. On the plus side, despite the challenges, the instruments did not overpower the vocals, which were clear and present. I’ll also say that pitch was really solid - even more impressive if they lacked some of the middle range in their mix.
Ovation has shown a real talent at doing drag, I will say. There were a number of characters who were in drag at different times, but obviously the main one would be the Master of Ceremonies. My wife informs me that the makeup in this version was based on Liza Minelli's look.
I cannot confirm that, having not watched the movie, but I can say that Zachary Gonzalez was absolutely fantastic in the role. He was riveting whenever he was on stage, super expressive, dark as hell, and gesture-perfect. He owned it.
I’ll mention a few others. Jack Slider seems to be everywhere lately, from Nick Bottom in Something Rotten to Drossylmeyer in the local production of The Nutcracker. (Disclosure: I am part of the orchestra for that one.) As the Nazi, Ludwig, he was appropriately banal yet sinister.
The romance between the spinster Fraulein Schneider (Kat Kohler) and the Jewish widow Herr Schultz (Hal Friedman) was tender and believable, and thus achingly sad.
Christina Friedman was brassy yet vulnerable as Sally. Rikk Cheshire has been in a number of very different plays over the last few years. He portrayed Clifford as fairly socially awkward, particularly with women. As expected, he has to eventually make his moral stand and be the hero (Isherwood definitely wrote himself that way), and Cheshire was believable in that role, and playing the straight guy is often the hardest role. My wife thought that he was a bit old for the part - Isherwood would have been in his mid-20s at the time, rather than roughly my age. On the other hand, Friedman as Sally was an age-appropriate match, rather than the standard Hollywood “20-year-old lead female matched with a 50-year-old lead male” thing that is finally getting some blowback.
One thing with this production that my wife looked up was the question of “gay kiss or no gay kiss?” Apparently, in the original Broadway production Bobby doesn’t kiss Clifford, while in the later revival, he does. The reason this came up is that Bakersfield is a pretty conservative town (although the theater crowd, not so much), so there was the question of whether the decision to not have the kiss in this case was due to a discomfort on the part of the actors, worry about whether it would be a problem for the particular audience at Ovation, or just sticking with the original Broadway version. Ah, the artistic decisions one must make. (Note here: a more edgy theater like The Empty Space would absolutely have done the gay kiss. But also, a slightly different audience.)
The rest of the cast kept out of the way of the leads when needed, but shined on the song and dance numbers. (Lots of Bob Fosse moves, my wife informs me - and she would know.)
Overall, I would say this show has high artistic and production values - the cast and band really put in the work to make everything seamless and professional. The story is devastating, of course. The real-life events are the central tragedy that haunts the 20th Century, and continue to reverberate today.
In many ways, props to Ovation for putting this on in a town that has a lot of fascist sympathizers flying their flags, as well as a congressman who has chosen to kiss the asses of Trump and the Insurrection Caucus in Congress.
The powerful part about the play is how it draws out the different responses. For too many - and always the loudest - the antisemitism (and white supremacy in general) is what they love about authoritarian leaders. For others, they just want to pretend they can ignore politics. They are all crooks, right? And it will all blow over pretty soon. Others, like Fraulein Schneider, are truly caught in an impossible situation. If she cannot rent her rooms, she starves. And if she makes the Nazis mad, she won’t have a license, and people will be discouraged from helping her.
And then there is the problem of Isherwood. Yeah, he gets to stand up for something (which is good), but he also can (as Sally tells him) just flee back to America and the allowance from his mother. His ethics cost him fairly little, while others risk everything.
[Note: a truly excellent book on Nazism and the ordinary German is They Thought They Were Free by Milton Meyer. It is back in print again, and I encourage everyone to read it. It is so very relevant to our own times.]
Cabaret runs this weekend, so a final chance for locals to go see it.