During the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, I lost track of how many people told me they were so disgusted by the whole process they weren’t going to vote, and that “politics” didn’t impact them anyway. It’s the same attitude expressed by Sally Bowles, star of John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb’s (lyrics) fabulous musical “Cabaret.”
In director Katie Spelman’s masterful staging for the Paramount in Aurora, Sally (Kelly Felthous) is easy to love. As such, she makes the audience complicit with the monstrous evil encroaching on Berlin and the world around it. Sally is smart and funny and lights up every room she enters. She also scorns any mention of “politics” as boring. “Cabaret” eventually forces the audience to realize that if you don’t care about politics, you don’t care about people. You don’t care about who is oppressed or who goes to war. Close to eyes to the fray, and you become complicit with the atrocities within it.
When: Through March 18
Where: Paramount Aurora, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
Tickets: $36 – $64
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Part of the genius in “Cabaret” lies in how it makes the audience complicit with the very villains it’s judging. There are at least two moments in the production when ticket-holders inevitably applaud goose-stepping Nazis and grotesque anti-Semitism. For a split second, the applause is just a natural reaction to a well-executed chorus line and a duet involving a ballet-dancing gorilla. But then the context kicks in. The laughter and applause are suddenly accompanied by shame and confusion. In pointing to the evil of the Third Reich, Kander and Ebb also point squarely at the audience and those who make it possible for such regimes to flourish.
In the Paramount’s lavish production, the message is clear, timely and filled with the lush sounds of Tom Vendafreddo’s 16-piece orchestra.
“Cabaret” unfolds in Berlin, in the last, wild days before the Nazis took over. When aspiring novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Garrett Lutz) arrives in Berlin, it’s a wonderland of pansexual shenanigans and anything-goes glitz. It’s a place like Coleridge’s mythical Pleasure Dome — measureless and enchanted. As in the poem, what lies beneath will soon corrupt what lies above.
Our entry into this fleeting, glorious hedonism is the Emcee (Joseph Anthony Byrd) of the Kit Kat and master of ceremonies for the world of the play. Byrd is as sinewy and alluring as a snake in the garden, a dancer with gorgeous lines and gleaming presence. Spelman gives his first entrance and final exit the feel of a conjurer; The Emcee is part specter, the not-quite-human embodiment of fantasy.
Felthous’ Bowles is a star turn, especially in the title number. It’s delivered right after Sally undergoes a particularly brutal episode in her life and Felthaus turns it into a raging nervous breakdown of a song. The lyrics are all about the party, the delivery about the fact that the party is over.
Lutz’ Cliff doesn’t shy away from the character’s flaws: A wide-eyed innocent artist and noble voice against Nazis, Cliff turns out to be an abuser, physically and emotionally assaulting Sally when she balks at uprooting her entire life to be with him. Like everyone else in “Cabaret,” Cliff isn’t a hero unless you’re comparing him to outright evil.
Hollis Resnik is a standout as Fraulein Schneider. Listen for her monologue on survival — Resnik turns the passage into an unforgettable meditation on what it takes to survive, come war or revolution or Communism or Nazis. As the prostitute Fraulein Kost, Meghan Murphy is also superb. It’s a small role, but Murphy’s commanding presence makes her memorable.
Spelman’s choreography serves the production well. The opening number is all about sexual abandon, the final number about stark fear. The choreography’s evolution from first to last is vividly expressive and technically impressive.
Finally, there’s scenic designer Scott Davis and lighting designer Yael Lubetzky’s evocative work. The Kit Kat Club is a place of grandeur, chandeliers, velvet and sweeping staircases. Look closer at the opulence: You can see the rot coming through moldering wallpaper and peeling paint. In the shows’ final moments, the tawdry glitz of Berlin vanishes. Cliff and Sally are left in darkness. When the Emcee disappears, it’s impossible not to think of the 6 million who will soon join him – and the infuriating, dangerous arrogance of those who say they’re too good for politics.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.