By Merle Exit
Over the years, the Kander and Ebbs’ musical “Cabaret” about 1930s Berlin has been a feast for local theatre groups since its Broadway premiere in 1966, and the story of artistic escapism in a time of creeping fascism feels especially poignant today.
Long Island City’s Secret Theatre offers a fresh treatment by director Hunter Bird with a more raucous and risqué script, and the immersive and intimate theater-in-the-round performance brings the heart of the sleazy Kit Kat Klub directly to the audience.
Larry Owens portrays the iconic emcee as a stereotypical drag queen inviting the audience to take a break from the swirling news cycle with the opening. “Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome! Leave your troubles outside. So life is disappointing, forget it! In here, life is beautiful!”
He introduces the lasciviously dressed girls, and then the boys — some of whom are also lasciviously dressed as girls — and even the boys in pants are adorned in black leather and lipstick, giving the 1930s German hotspot a sense that “anything goes.”
Cliff Bradshaw, a writer, (Jesse Weil) and Ernst Ludwig (Jeff Hathcoat) meet aboard a train to Berlin where Cliff is looking to teach English in order to make enough money to stay. On Ernst’s advice, Cliff takes a room at the home of Fraulein Schneider (Sue Lynn Yu), a high-spirited 60-year-old.
Cliff meets Sally Bowles (Natalie Walker), an English woman who performs and hosts at the Kit Kat Klub where she sings, “Mein Herr” and “Don’t Tell Mama.” Sally moves in with Cliff — despite being uninvited — eventually leading to thoughts of marriage, made urgent when Sally discovers that she’s pregnant.
Fraulein Schneider gets involved with a Jewish green grocer, Herr Shultz (Mark Coffin) who gifts her with a pineapple as they sing “It Couldn’t Please Me More” (“A Pineapple for Me”), but the relationship becomes problematic as the Nazi party is about to take over.
Yu is the most polished performer in the cast, with both her vocals and characterization. Coffin, although he did sing well, lacked the sort of “miskite” character that backs up the song “Married”. Then again, Bird chose these characterizations.
Fraulein Kost (Alexa Polla), another renter at Schneider’s, plays a significant role in “Cabaret” as she consistently spends her nights with sailors. Fraulein Schneider objects, saying, “Don’t let me catch you.” Kost tells her that she needs the money to pay her rent, and Schneider is “trying to overlook it.” The next time that Schneider catches her is also when Kost sees Schneider with Schultz in close communication, already knowing that her being with a Jew is unwise for the times. When Schneider and Schultz sing “Married,” Kost solos the song with German lyrics, perhaps to prepare us for what is to come.
As Act I ends, Kost begins to sing, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” as many characters reveal their patriotism toward Nazi Germany, including one who removes his shirt as we see a swastika tattoo on his arm. Bird chose the shorter version omitting, “Oh Fatherland, Fatherland / Show us the sign / Your children have waited to see / The morning will come / When the world is mine. / Tomorrow belongs to me!” which may have especially resonated in the present situation.
But Bird did include one of the most controversial elements of the show. The rendition of “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” uses a gorilla mask and includes the original ending, “But if you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all,” a lyric which was changed when the show was on Broadway after a backlash.
The height of Owens’ vocals actually comes near the end when he sings “I Don’t Care Much.” The final song, “Cabaret” starts out strong but gets lost as the ensemble seems to take over, with Walker lacking a microphone. She gives us a “Liza Minelli style” in her speaking voice, and most of the time her vocals are clear and precise.
Set in the round, members of the band, piano, bass and drums are placed in different areas of the audience, and may even be beside you.
The floor is used for the full stage with front and side areas depicting an apartment, rooming house, dressing room and off stage section of the Kit Kat Klub, which is given a “main stage.” Kudos goes to musical director Dan Garmon and the rest of the cast and crew.
Although they advertise that one needs to be 13 years of age to view the show, I think that the teen would be quite embarrassed to see this with his or her parents. One of the props that gets more than enough attention is a blow up male doll which is anatomically correct. I was surprised it didn’t get a blurb in the bio portion of the program, which also lacked a list of songs and the characters who sing them.
Cabaret continues to perform from Thursday, Feb. 9 to Sunday, February 19. You can reach the box office by calling 718-392-0722.