by Matt Holmes
“Cabaret” is playing at the Merriam Theatre on Broad Street in Philadelphia until Feb. 25th. This musical, with songs by Kander & Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff, tells several, inter-woven stories that take place in Berlin just before World War II. Most of the play centers on the Kit-Kat Club, a hedonistic nightclub that provides most of the songs of the play. These musical numbers parallel both the situations of the characters, and the historical development of pre-war Germany. The versatile orchestra acts, sings, dances, and provides all the music of the play, lending to the realism of the Kit-Kat Club, and does it all barely dressed.
As the play starts, they stretch, strut, and stagger around the stage. It feels as though you are actually in a German nightclub in 1929. Also lending to the realistic feel of the imagined nightclub is the engaging emcee. Played by Jon Peterson, who chats with the audience, he narrates the play and the rise of Nazism through song and leers over the lives of the characters around him. He is both creepy enough to show the slow progression of Hitler’s rise to control and charming enough as the host of the club and the play. Peterson’s performance of this difficult role was excellent.
Andrea McArdle plays Sally Bowles, a singer at the Kit-Kat Club. Though her British accent is shaky, she delivers a performance that shows the development of Sally from coy, bad-girlishness in “Don’t Tell Mama,” to hopeful desperation in “Maybe This Time,” to jaded anger in “Cabaret.” She acts the part of the flaky, troubled performer very well and makes her both a bad role model and a sympathetic character at once. Hank Stratton plays Cliff Bradshaw, a sexually confused American writer who visits the Kit-Kat Club and ends up living with Sally. His emotional performance subtlely shows his stressed relationship with Sally, his homosexual frustration and his strained attempt to stand up against the growing Nazi hatred around him.
Hal Robinson as Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor, and Alma Cuervo as Fraulein Schneider, who is not Jewish and runs the boarding house where Cliff and Sally live, give a touching, mature story of love torn apart by hatred. Both of their performances are excellent, and show the real effect of the Nazis. Also excellent is Nicole Van Giesen’s portrayal of Fraulein Kost, a whore who also lives in the boarding house. Her scenes are both humorous, with multiple sailors running out of her room, and pathetic as she persuades Herr Schultz for money. She also shows the desperation of Germany after the First World War that leads to Hitler’s eventual power.
All of the actors provide clear, understandable performances, some with difficult accents, and still deliver emotion and character insight. One rather effective song is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” where the emcee, with a growing spotlight around him, plays a recording of a young boy singing. The song is later reprised in full orchestration as Fraulein Kost leads revealed Nazi sympathizers at a party for Herr Schultz’s and Fraulein Schneider’s wedding. The music is delivered flawlessly, and the songs, also with accents, are sung quite well. The humor is at times bawdy, in the lusty “Two Ladies,” at times witty, in the dialogue between Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, and the rather difficult material is delivered nicely through story and vaudevillian song and dance. The funny, sexy songwriting helps you to understand the cause of, and growth of Hitler’s Germany, and the horrible effects of it, but not be so drained emotionally that it’s not a good show. By the time we get to the end of the play, the call of “Leave your troubles outside” becomes an ironic statement of how you cannot ignore your problems or the world around you.