Minnesota MonthlyBy Quinton Skinner January 21, 2014
Kander and Ebb’s musical about Weimar Berlin holds up astonishingly well after nearly half a century, for reasons that include both the good and ill: its themes of libertine celebration amid encroaching tides of bigotry and authoritarianism will probably never grow entirely irrelevant, alas. But what a celebration it is, sexy and catchy and full of heart, and a vehicle for breakout performances the likes of which burst from this Theater Latte Da production.
The action plays out over a couple of parallel tracks. In one, the onstage hijinks at a club called the Kit Kat include song and dance numbers infused with all manner of lewd charm, not least via the sinisterly charismatic Emcee (Tyler Michaels) and his star performer Sally Bowles (Kira Lace Hawkins), and augmented by young performers in various stages of undress. The performances are delivered with unflagging energy and charm, and with a technical assurance that argues volumes for the work’s enduring status.
In the other, we tag along with the youngish writer Clifford Bradshaw (Sean Dooley), an American bouncing around Europe ostensibly writing a novel (as is usually the case, the crushing monotony of the enterprise is sensibly left offstage). Clifford and Sally fall for one another, live in charming poverty, and eventually collide with the tides of history that coincide with the rise of Nazism.
The ideas here are fairly big, and stuffed into the narrative suitcase at frequently odd and awkward angles (those who remember the brilliant, disturbing run of The Scottboro Boys at the Guthrie will also recall Kander and Ebb’s willingness to juxtapose discordant emotion with toe-tapping craft). Clifford is in a sense our narrative linchpin, though he’s mopey and passive (it’s hard to imagine why members of both genders seem to keep falling for him), and the most inexplicable character on hand.
More effective is a romance between Sally Wingert and James Michael Detmar as an innkeeper and fruit vendor (respectively), a September song of a love affair that in time follows the tragic contours of history. Adam Qualls also contributes a sympathetic if enigmatic businessman whose politics in time spur the disintegration of Clifford’s world.
Done right, this isn’t a musical with a neat ending or uncomplicated sympathies—it’s frankly too smart for that. But what’s easy to draw out here are Michaels and Hawkins, the performers at the center of the most powerful moments of the evening. Michaels is, to all appearances, nothing short of an emerging star: uncanny and assured, tragic and glamorous, sweet and astringent in the same instant. By the end, he delivers “I Don’t Care Much” with a depth that nearly breaks one's heart; Hawkins then arrives to sing the title song and finally shatters it. Here’s beauty, pain, complexity: the stirrings of what is great about the theater.
This Cabaret isn’t perfect, or without its moments of drift, but it has a fascinating immediacy and power that moves, disturbs, unsettles. If it doesn’t feel like a museum piece, that’s because it’s done its job—raising the universal and the palpable in the conflict between little lives and big forces, and the moments of beauty that arguably are never extinguished in the march of history and inescapable mortality.