Composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb and are best known for the musicals they wrote that turned vanishing or vanished forms of popular entertainment into grandiose, menacing metaphors. “The whole world is all show business,” says lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago, which is structured like a vaudeville show. “Everyone’s a minstrel tonight,” says the Interlocuter in The Scottsboro Boys, a minstrel show itself.
As for Cabaret, well, you know. “Life is a cabaret, old chum,” sings Sally Bowles in the 1966 musical that plays out like an evening at a Berlin club during the dying days of the Weimar Republic.
Because of their built-in concepts, Kander and Ebb’s musicals are more easily refreshed than reinvented. A few years back, the Stratford Festival failed to provide an entirely convincing new vision for Cabaret, and now it’s the Shaw Festival’s turn to fail, albeit more ambitiously. In fact, director Peter Hinton’s failure is so overflowing and excessive that it is actually fairly riveting.
This Cabaret’s striking originality begins with a revolving set by Michael Gianfrancesco, which, in the words of another musical that doesn’t end very happily for its Jewish characters, resembles one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down. Gianfrancesco has designed a giant, metallic tower of Babel from which the Emcee can greet us in three languages: “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.”
The Emcee in question is played by Juan Chioran in, oddly, an Ed Grimley hairdo – and his opening number, with nightmarishly attired ensemble members winding up and down the intertwined spiral staircases, looks like some sort of totalitarian Busby Berkeley routine.
But that’s not our actual welcome. Before the song begins, Cliff Bradshaw (Gray Powell), an American writer who has come to Berlin for its sexual freedoms on the eve of the rise of the Nazism, speaks to us from behind his typewriter, the clicking of its keys later added to the score’s percussive elements.
Though even before that, when you enter the theatre, a sad, banjo-playing clown is already sitting onstage; this unnamed character hangs around for much of the show, though what exactly he is meant to represent is a mystery to me.
Essentially, Hinton has layered a concept or two on top of a concept musical and added extra omniscient characters to a show that already had one in the Emcee.
The frames within frames are unnecessary and confusing, but don’t stop the rest of Cabaret from nevertheless hanging together: At the Kit Kat Klub, Cliff encounters a British singer named Sally Bowles, played here with the right mix of edgy charisma by Shaw-turned-Stratford-turned-Shaw star Deborah Hay. The two end up living together ignoring Sally’s addictions, and Cliff’s semi-repressed homosexuality, and the slow, but inevitable rise of Nazism.
Also sleepwalking through the era are boarding-house owner Fraulein Schneider (Corrine Koslo), who embarks on a romance with a Jewish grocer (Benedict Campbell).
On the whole, the actresses fare better than the actors. Koslo is moving and Hay often unnerving, but Powell can’t always hit the notes when he sings, Chioran never really entirely sells us on the Emcee, and Campbell’s characterization is off in its own odd little world.
What impresses are the breathtaking red-and-black pictures that Hinton conjures with the help of his choreographer Denise Clarke (of One Yellow Rabbit) – whether a scene where the stage turns into a giant rotary telephone or one where dozens of copies of Mein Kampf burst into flames. Musical director Paul Sportelli’s orchestra – supplemented by cast members on accordion, bass and banjo – can sound equally hot and dangerous.
If you want to see a Cabaret that’s a familiar old chum, the show is currently back on Broadway in Sam Mendes’s celebrated 1998 production with Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams in the cast. If you want to be unsettled and surprised and occasionally irritated, then the Shaw Festival’s version might be the better trip.
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