Stage Door Review

Cabaret

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb & book by Joe Masteroff, directed by Dennis Garnhum

Grand Theatre, McManus Stage, London

April 11-May 18, 2019

Emcee: “In here life is beautiful”

The Grand Theatre has a major hit on its hand with Dennis Garnhum’s immersive production of Cabaret. No matter how many times you may have seen this musical, you won’t ever have seen it like this. Inspired by the revisionist staging by Sam Mendes in 1998, Garnhum has gutted the entire McManus Theatre and turned it into the Kit Kat Klub of the musical. The entire musical is presented as a musical fable inside the club by the Kit Kat boys and girls whose members just happen to include the major characters of the show. This gives the entire production an inescapable metatheatrical dimension that nonetheless does not impair the show’s emotional impact. In fact, paradoxically, forcing us to see the musical as a Kit Kat Klub production only seems to heighten its impact.

The show begins while you are waiting in line for the doors to the theatre to open a half hour before showtime. Lawrence Libor, who plays Ernst, demands that everyone show not only their tickets but photo ID to enter the theatre. Once past his scrutiny you are led through the dressing rooms while the actors are still getting prepared, past the props table, past an impromptu bar into the main space. 

The first thing you notice is that there is no stage. There is a small raised area for percussion and a piano and nothing else. Otherwise, there are seven long tables, most seating 10-12 each, except for one table higher and much longer than than the rest set at a diagonal in the room. Besides this there is a higher two-foot deep counter running around three of the polygonal space’s walls with higher chairs all along to suit it. Once the show begins we soon discover that all the table and counter surfaces are used as the “stage”, especially the raised table in the middle and the two tables abutting either end to form a zigzag. But Garnhum doesn’t stop there. He also uses all the floor area between the tables, the purpose-built balcony, the staircase to the balcony and even the catwalks over the space. 

In his review for Variety of Sam Mendes’s 1998 production which had a space for table seating in front of the stage, Chris Jones wrote, “One is ... left with the sense that Mendes wished the whole show was set in a cabaret”. That is precisely what Garnhum has done. The entire room that is the cabaret is also the acting space. In his famous film of Cabaret (1972), Bob Fosse omitted all the musical numbers except “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” that were not set in the Kit Kat Klub. Here those numbers are performed in the cabaret by cabaret performers, making the entire story one that is told by the cabaret troupe. This approach is actually in line with the kind of productions in modern day Berlin cabarets meant for Berliners, as opposed to tourists, that present highly political short plays and skits that comment on current situations.

For all its immersive nature, Garnhum does not allow us to think that we have entered the Kit Kat Klub as it existed sometime in the 1930s. Before and after the show and during intermission, Garnhum has techno and industrial music playing, the kind one would hear in a disco in present day Berlin. References are added to the show to a local London real estate company and English phrases Ernst learns from Clifford are lyrics from Mamma Mia! that opens at the Grand on April 26. These two aspects of the production suggest that the Kit Kat Klub is staging a musical set in the 1930s for its current relevance.

In his production, Mendes had the Kit Kat Klub boys and girls also double as the band. Garnhum takes this notion even further and his cast not only plays Kit Kat Klub boys and girls but also double as the band. In that way Garnhum needs only 9 performers as opposed to the 17 that Mendes used. The idea of staging a musical where the singers are also the band probably stems from the ground-breaking production of Sweeney Todd by John Doyle in 2005. Under Doyle, this doubling of function reinforced his notion that the musical took place in a madhouse. 

Here, Garnhum’s doubling of the singers’ function gives more the impression that all the performers are contributing to telling the story. It also contributes to the Brechtian “alienation effect” that is meant to distance the audience from the subject matter so that the audience can appraise it more rationally. Thus, Garnhum stages even a guaranteed showstopper like “Maybe This Time” in a way you’ve likely never seen before. Cliff (James Daly) plays the melody on the trombone, while Sally Bowles (Tess Benger) accompanies herself by plucking a cello. After the first verse, Daly moves over to play the drums while Benger accompanies herself on the piano. Only for the final verse does Benger simply sing in front of the piano while the rest pf the troupe play their instruments from wherever they happen to be in the room.

The key difference between Garnhum’s approach and that taken by everyone since Mendes’s production is that Garnhum does not emphasize the sexual decadence of the Kit Kat Klub. Mendes made the Emcee and the Kit Kat Klub boys and girls raunchy in their attempts to flaunt their sexuality and flout conservative morals. Garnhum’s Emcee (Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane) is much more like the enigmatic Emcee of Fosse’s film. As for the rest of the troupe their transgressiveness is shown mostly through Alexandra Lord’s costumes rather than their behaviour. Bobby (Isaac Bell), Clifford’s old flame from London, has a beard but wears a dress. 

Clifford himself looks perfectly respectable in trousers and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves, except that Lord has him wear a corset under his pants that sticks up about six inches all round his shirt. Frau Schneider (Charlotte Moore) and Herr Schultz (W. Joseph Matheson) are conventionally dressed when they play those roles, but they don whatever costumes are needed, whether as nuns or sailors, for the other roles they play. The Emcee is female but wears a military coat, jodhpurs and jack boots but a partially see-through blouse. No pronouns are changed in referring to “him”. The song “Two Ladies” is completely gender-reversed with a female Emcee and the two Ladies played by men (Lawrence Libor and W. Joseph Matheson). 

All of these changes completely de-glamourize and de-romanticize Cabaret, quite unlike the Fosse film. Everything in the show is subsumed to its political message of how how we cannot take personal liberty for granted. There will always be people ready to impose their narrow view of order on the world in which neither you nor your values have a place.

In this light Clifford Bradshaw and Sally Bowles are presented in quite a different light than is usual. Clifford is meant to be out of his depth in a Berlin where nothing is as it seems, but James Daly plays the role as if more than just naive. Daly gives the impression that Cliff has almost given up his idea that he is a “writer” and has come to see he really doesn’t know what he is doing with his life. This makes Cliff’s notion of living with Sally in a house in the US appear to be a complete fantasy. It’s a pity the musical gives Cliff so few chances to sing, but this production begins with Cliff singing “Willkommen”, and those who know Daly only from his acting will be surprised to hear what a fine voice he has and how adept he is on the trombone and the drums.

Tess Benger plays Sally Bowles as even more a fantasist than Cliff. In this production Sally’s decision to remain in Berlin has the weight of tragedy. Unlike the Fosse film, Benger’s Sally is not a real star who happens to be in a place where her talent will not be discovered, but rather a sorry, confused individual who wants to imagine she is a star and has just enough personality and lung-power to be a success in a third-rate club. Benger belts out such hits as “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr” with vivacity and aplomb. Despite the alienation devices of self-accompaniment, Benger builds to a powerful climax in “Maybe This Time”, even if we doubt Sally will ever “win”. Benger ends Sally’s rendition of the title song not a note of defiance as happens in the film, but of despair, physically and mentally falling apart as she tries to convince herself that “Life is a cabaret” has some positive meaning. As far as we seen, the musical views a cabaret as a symbol for self-delusion and retreat from the outside world. 

The Emcee of Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane is completely ambiguous in terms of gender, sexual orientation and politics. Sinclair-Brisbane throws lots of energy into the Emcee’s many songs but she always gives them an edge as if daring us to approve of their sentiments. Sinclair-Brisbane delivers the Emcee’s only personal song, “I Don’t Care Much” not in the heavily ironic way that most actors use, but rather as if she were wondering at her total lack of engagement with anyone or anything around her. As this is the Emcee’s only slow song and does not require a snarling delivery, it is also the only time we have a chance to appreciate what a lovely singing voice Sinclair-Brisbane actually has.

The character who really wins our heart is the Fräulein Schneider of Charlotte Moore. Moore sings Schneider’s songs with a complex feeling of daring to hope despite being accustomed to disappointment. W. Joseph Matheson plays Herr Schultz is a wonderfully mild and sincere man and his duet with Moore in “Married” is one of the highlights of the show. A guitar for him and an ukulele for her are their main instruments.

Lawrence Libor makes Ernst a dubious figure right from the beginning and we wonder at Cliff’s naïveté in having anything to do with him. The Fräulein Kost of Margaret Thompson is very amusing as she tells her bold-faced lies about all her nephews and other male relations who she claims need somewhere to sleep in Berlin. In fact, it is because Thompson is so adept at comedy, that it is absolutely chilling when she begins “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, in a very fine voice, to please Ernst and discomfort the elderly couple at the engagement party. Both Libor and Thompson play a wide variety of instruments including the accordion. 

In this production “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is first sung as a beautiful folksong a cappella by the entire cast. Only in its reprise at the party does its celebration of one’s homeland acquire a sinister meaning. By this means, Garnhum shows how what we regard as innocent can be appropriated by certain factions and politicized. It’s rather too bad that Garnhum stages the ending in such an abstract way that its meaning is not entirely clear. All we can gather is that no one, right or left, except for the almost demonically aloof Emcee escapes destruction.

That notion, in fact, is what underlies Garnhum’s production of Cabaret that is not staged as portrait of people caught in the web of politics in a famous city in a certain decade in the past. Rather, Garnhum’s staging continually uses the events in the musical to attach warning signs to the parallels between what happened in 1930s Berlin and all over the world now. Berlin had been the most advanced, liberal city in the world in the 1920s, but that leftward swing plus a devastated economy led to a strong reaction. Today we’ve seen numerous governments shift to the right and xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist views not merely expressed by heads of governments but enacted into law. One of the main points of this extremely inventive, ingeniously staged immersive show is, paradoxically, that if we think life is only a cabaret as Sally does, then we are in big trouble. 

Subscribers have first dibs on the new block of tickets from May 12 to 18. On April 28, tickets are available to the general public and will surely sell out yet again. If the right venue could be found for this production in Toronto – say The Great Hall at Queen and Dovercourt – it would likely run indefinitely. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: (from top) W. Joseph Matheson, Lawrence Libor, Phoebe Hu, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane as the Emcee, Margaret Thompson, Tess Benger as Sally, James Daly as Clifford and Charlotte Moore; James Daly (with trombone), Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane and Charlotte Moore; Tess Benger as Sally Bowles; W. Joseph Matheson, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane as the Emcee and Lawrence Libor in “Two Ladies" . © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit grandtheatre.com.