Mark Gresham | 9 JUN 2022
Is it a symptom of a crumbling society or its cause? Or are both true, working simultaneously, feeding off each other?
Those were top among a myriad of questions plaguing my mind after witnessing last Thursday’s opening night performance of a powerful and provocative new production of Cabaret from Tomer Zvulun and The Atlanta Opera.
First and most importantly, the observer must completely forget the award-winning 1966 movie of the same name. As great as the film is in many ways, the stage musical is even better and has far more bite. There are also considerable differences in scripts, the dramatic structure and focus, the number and selection of songs, and even the characters. The movie experience will not help you much, and it is best to take the stage version on its own compelling merits.
The Tony Award-winning 1966 musical Cabaret was adapted from the 1939 novel, Goodbye to Berlin, by Anglo-American writer Christopher Isherwood, who documented the decadence of the cabaret scene in a disintegrating Berlin from 1929 to 1932. In the musical, Isherwood, a shy gay British expatriate, appears in the character of American writer Clifford Bradshaw (portrayed by Atlanta native Billy Tighe in his Atlanta Opera debut).
The musical opens at a Berlin cabaret, the Kit Kat Klub, during a celebration of the New Year of 1929. The flamboyant, presumably pansexual Emcee (baritone Curt Olds) and his ensemble of performers welcome the audience with the curtain-raiser, “Willkommen,” which immediately makes clear the seedy and highly sexualized nature of the venue’s entertainment (even if somewhat glamorized versus the real-life experiences of Isherwood and his friends).
Zvulun and his creative team chose to set the musical immersively so that the audience for the musical, especially those seated at tables near the runway stage, are also the audience inside the Kit Kat Klub itself.
They also chose to mount the production inside a rail warehouse at Pullman Yards, a former industrial complex in Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood occupied by the Pratt Engineering Company beginning in 1904, then the Pullman Company from 1926 to 1955 as a place to repair their famous railroad sleeper cars. Pullman Yards is now owned and operated as an entertainment destination by Atomic Entertainment. The extant character of the early 20th-century industrial architecture was one element that made it attractive to Zvulun as the venue for this particular production concept for Cabaret.
The Kit Kat Klub not only provides an immersive environment for the musical, but its revue also provides a framework for the story. You might call it “a play within a revue,” with the edges between them occasionally blurred as the evening progresses.
Rail transportation plays an integral part in the story. Cliff arrives in Berlin by railway car, where he meets and befriends a German smuggler Ernst Ludwig (played on opening night by Marietta native Nick Morrett, who doubled as Max, the Kit Kat Klub owner). Ernst recommends the boarding house of Fraülein Schneider (Joyce Campana, Atlanta Opera debut), who reluctantly but pragmatically accepts half the usual rent from Cliff, all he can afford, rather than let the room go vacant, which she sings about in “So What?”
Having secured a room, Cliff visits the Kit Kat Klub, where the Emcee introduces a flirtatious and promiscuous young English singer named Sally Bowles (played by Aja Goes, Atlanta Opera debut). Isherwood himself created the fictional Sally Bowles, modeled after real-life 19-year-old cabaret singer Jean Ross, a character he described as a “self-indulgent upper-middle-class British tourist who could escape Berlin whenever she chose.”
Sally sings “Don’t Tell Mama” as part of the cabaret show, after which Max, the club’s proprietor, fires her. Cliff comes backstage, and Sally flirts with him but to no avail. She leaves Cliff alone in her dressing room to sing her final number. (“Mein Herr”). While she is gone, Bobby (Peyton McDaniel Davis, Atlanta Opera debut), one of Kit Kat Klub’s male ensemble performers, enters. Cliff and Bobby kiss, with a swift blackout. And the audience’s perception of the club’s social makeup further evolves.
Anyone whose acquaintance with Cabaret is limited to the titular song might assume it would be Goes’ showstopper of the evening, which could have stood a little more grit and defiance. Instead, the apex for Goes was the torchy “Maybe This Time,” which began with a smoldering vulnerability and built to a sizzling emotional climax.
In this song, Goes exited any Betty Boopish patina of the 1920s and jumped into the beginning of the 1930s. It was like stepping out of a George Grosz painting and into one by Edward Hopper, from the social dysfunction of the former to the lonely realism of the latter, where a new dysfunction would begin to impose upon Germany and all of Europe.
Although Zvulun’s productions lean toward the theatrical, here was a “stand there and sing” moment that was superb. Also, it’s essential to acknowledge the insightful role of conductor Francesco Milioto and the Atlanta Opera Orchestra in this number. The performance by Goes and the band was right on target.
The landlady Fraülein Schneider is only a minor role in the movie, but the character of Herr Schultz (Anthony Lacisura), a Jewish fruit seller, isn’t in it at all. But in the stage musical, they and their domestic relationship are critical to the story.
Herr Schultz woos Fraülein Schneider with the gift of a luxurious pineapple from California, and they sing a courtship duet, “It Couldn’t Please Me More.” and later the sentimental “Marriage” when he proposes to her. There is much nostalgia and tenderness in their relationship.
Together they represent the pre-war generation of the old German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm and some nostalgia for those socially conservative, economically flourishing times.
Of course, every drama must have antagonists. We get them in Ernst Ludwig, who had made friends with Cliff early in the story, who turns out to be a swastika armband-wearing Nazi. There is also Fraülein Kost (Deborah Bowman, Atlanta Opera debut), a prostitute who lives in the boardinghouse and services sailors “for the Fatherland.”
In their respective hostile reaction to the relationship between Fraülein Schneider and the Jewish Herr Schultz, they become part of the broader collective antagonism of a prevalent anti-Semitism and rising The Nazi Party.
The most complex character in Cabaret, without a doubt, is the Emcee.
Curt Olds as the seemingly prescient Emcee embodies the archetypal trickster with a little shadow thrown in, who defies social norms and conventional behavior, playfully disrupting order and mocking it. Like the mythological Norse mischief-maker Loki, sometimes assists and sometimes thwarts the gods, he exhibits variability in gender and sexual preferences. He also, at times, seems to possess secret knowledge behind what is happening around him and an ability to manipulate it.
His performance costumes (designed, as are those of the entire show, by Eric Teague), which range from male bondage leather with fishnet stockings and half heels to drag in a droopy red gown, are evidence of his fluidity and sense of parody, at least when presenting as an entertainer.
While singing “Money,” which is not only about the average person’s need for money but also mocks the elite who still have enough to appear socially wealthy, the Emcee wears an abstract tuxedo costume that seems 1920s Bauhaus-inspired. (Even if not so far out as the costumes of Oskar Schlemmer, at least a nod in that direction.)
The Emcee also has club revue songs that mock, with subversive satire, scenes that immediately precede them.
“Perfectly Marvelous,” a cheerful Charleston sung by Sally and Cliff when Sally suddenly appears in Cliff’s room with her baggage and moves in, is immediately countered by the Emcee and two companions singing “Two Ladies,” a bawdy number about relationships in a three-way cohabitation.
After Herr Schultz sings a reprise of “Married” to Fraülein Schneider in Act II to assuage her fears about marrying a Jewish man, the Emcee responds with “If You Could See Her” paired with a mute gorilla in gown (a costumed Brandon Nuyen). While the obvious assumption in this despairing love song is that they are not socially accepted as a couple because she is a gorilla, the song’s final lines are:
I grant you the problem’s not small.
But if you could see her through my eyes,
She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.
The threatening rise of the Nazis, who promise to cleanse and bring order to a chaotic society, is central to the tectonic shifts in Cabaret’s narrative, which drive it and the devolving human relationships within it to its conclusion.
The deep rumblings of the Nazi ascent begin in a seemingly innocuous way in Act I when the Emcee plays a record on a gramophone. With an expression of wonderment, the Emcee hears the angelic voice of an unaccompanied boy soprano (14-year-old Max Cook, Atlanta Opera debut) singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
The song is heard again at the end of Act I, begun by Fraülein Kost, joined by Ernst and the entire ensemble, as Cliff, Sally, Herr Schultz, and Fraülein Schneider look on silently.
During intermission, in the lobby, a larger-than-life poster advertising the Kit Kat Klub, prominently displayed and seen by the audience before the show started, has been ominously defaced, painted over with a large white swastika. At least a handful of people had their photos taken in front of the poster ahead of the show (this critic and his companion included), so it was a bit of a jolt to see it defaced at intermission. But this is immersive theater, and the storytelling extends outside of the hall as well as permeating the performance space inside.
(How ironic, too, that the acronym for the Kit Kat Klub is KKK.)
As a reminder of the end of Act I, and perhaps commentary, Act II opens with an energetic montage of the Emcee and the Kit Kat Girls that transforms into a goosestep. From that point, the story begins to devolve quickly for the protagonists.
Fraulein Schneider is concerned about the consequences of marrying Herr Schultz, and a brick crashes through Herr Schultz’s shop window. They call off their engagement, and Herr Schulz moves to another boarding house. But he is convinced that bad times will soon pass because, while a Jew, he also considers himself a German and believes he understands the German people and the German mind. (It also brings to mind a similar sentiment near the end of the World War I opera Silent Night, where the Jewish German 93rd Infantry Lieutenant Horstmayer says, “I am a good German.” Both Schultz and Horstmeyer are products of the German Empire era.)
In the first Act, Sally discovers that she is pregnant (but unsure of by whom), and after the initial shock, Cliff comes to accept and support her having the baby. In Act II, Cliff wants to take Sally back to America to raise the baby together. Sally wants to remain in Berlin, but Cliff tells her to “wake up” to the growing unrest.
Without Cliff’s knowledge, Sally has an abortion. She decides to stay in Berlin and continue to live her life as a Cabaret performer at the Kit Kat Klub where, after an argument, Ernst’s Nazi bodyguards beat Cliff and throw him out on the street.
Cliff leaves Berlin as he came: by train. The Emcee appears briefly dressed as a customs official, and he finally begins his novel, reflecting upon his experiences: “There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies, and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany… and it was the end of the world.”
Here the plot brings forward another aspect of mounting The Atlanta Opera’s production in a 1904 railroad warehouse, one not expressed by Zvulun but which the observer may notice beyond its transformation into a cabaret club. Not just because of its interesting architecture as environment but also the importance of the Deutsche Reichsbahn railway system as a primary mode of transport during the Weimar Republic and the notorious subsequent use of trains by the Nazi regime.
In the final scene, the remainder of the cast, including the ensemble from the Kit Kat Klub, assembles on stage in regular travel clothing of the day, carrying suitcases, departing for unknown destinations outside of Berlin. But to where? Some perhaps by train for Paris, and from there to Britain or the United States. Or maybe Auschwitz-Birkenau. As they exit, each places their suitcase in a pile at the front of the stage—reminiscent of historical images of piles of suitcases taken from people deported to Auschwitz.
As the Emcee sings a final reprise of “Wilkommen” (“Auf Wiedersehen, a bientot…”), he removes his trenchcoat to reveal the striped uniform of a concentration camp prisoner. He walks forward toward the pile of suitcases, and an ominous snare drum roll, cymbal crash, and final blackout abruptly end the show with an arresting impact.
In further pondering about Cabaret, what comes to mind most is how essential it is to consider that its message is not just about the past and that particular critical era in Western civilization during the early 20th century. It is also about the future, and should serve as a warning about our own increasingly decadent and divisive times we find ourselves in today, almost 100 years later.
On a final note: Although there were very young people present in the audience at last Thursday’s opening night performance, parents must recognize in advance in advance that this product is explicitly for mature audiences due to the substance, themes, bawdiness, and sexuality expressed. The same caution is also for adults whose religious and moral sensibilities might be easily offended. Again, here is where one needs to not rely upon the movie, which is much tamer in its handling of such things. Otherwise, this forthright presentation of Cabaret by The Atlanta Opera is a must-see for more resilient and open-minded adults. ■
The Atlanta Opera will perform Cabaret again, with five shows remaining, on June 10, 12 (matinee), 16, 17 & 19 (matinee) at Pullman Yards.
- The Atlanta Opera: atlantaopera.org