The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robi Polgar, September 12, 2003, Arts

'Cabaret': I Am a Camera -- That Chooses Not to See

Theater at the J, Dell Jewish Community Center

Running Time: 2 hrs., 40 min.

Somewhere in the middle of the first act of Kander and Ebb's blistering and ever-apt musical, cabaret singer Sally Bowles suggests to her new lover, writer Clifford Bradshaw, that there's little need for the two young expatriate Americans to pay all that much attention to the political currents of their adopted home, 1929-1930 Berlin. They are Americans abroad, there to intoxicate themselves with Berlin's wild scene. Germany's roiling politics? It has nothing to do with them. Only when things turn really grim around them do they begin to grasp the risks of living in what is clearly the nascence of the Nazis' version of Germany. Until then -- and, for Sally, even then -- there is the cabaret, an escape into a seamy, steamy world of satire and sex, the scandalous and the scantily clad. Of all Berlin's intoxicants, it is the Kit Kat Club that provides the headiest concoction for adventurers of the base.

This Theater at the J production makes good use of the large hall at the Dell Jewish Community Center, turning it into a Kit Kat Club of (less deleterious) sorts with tables and chairs to sit in and German beers (and wine and sodas) to drink. The action is cleverly staged all around the room: a train compartment at one end is complemented by Fraulein Schneider's boarding house at the other; along one side is the Kit Kat Club stage itself, with the production's talented troupe of musicians seated behind a scrim of grotesque faces, recalling a George Grosz painting. The actors perform on and between the stage areas, and it is not unlikely that you may find a Kit Kat girl sitting in your lap in the middle of a number. The whole effort is rather good, and director Mark A. Lit and choreographer K.C. Gussler have found creative ways to weave the cabaret's musical shenanigans into the more serious larger story.

As the young Americans, Alia McKee and Patrick Laform are quite likeable, although an entirely likable Sally Bowles doesn't seem to serve the story so well. And McKee's Bowles and Laform's Bradshaw strike few sparks. He's all bright-eyed wonderment, and she appears to be using him; their volte-faces don't quite ring true (he develops a conscience; she loves him). As older couple Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, upon whose tale the weighty story of this musical rests, Sue Bilich and Hink Johnson are as likable as the younger pair, with added, touching humor. The entire cast sings and dances well, and the cabaret numbers, led by Doug Labelle as the delightfully decadent Emcee, include several surprises.

Blackouts slow down the storytelling, diminishing the connection between scenes of characters facing the accelerating horrors of Nazi Germany and ribald musical numbers in the cabaret that poke fun at those horrors while distinctly not ignoring them. The central characters, however, fend off the impending disaster by choosing not to see it: For Sally, it's just politics and not worth getting serious about; for Clifford, it's his blinkered inability to see beyond the shiny façade of his new city; for the Jewish Herr Schultz, it's his clinging to the mistaken belief that as a born German he should be safe even if the Nazis do take control. Only the cabaret itself, through its devious songs, seems to possess an understanding of where the twisted regime will lead: to the cattle cars, the concentration camps, and the gas chambers. Lit and company leave nothing in doubt as to that final destination.

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