“There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies, and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany, and it was the end of the world.” Cabaret, the classic 1966 musical by Kander and Ebb is currently playing in Los Angeles in a lively and timely production at the intimate Celebration Theatre that demands the audience reexamine the story’s warnings against fascism in the light of current events.
Cabaret takes place in Berlin in 1930, just as the rise of Hitler and the Nazis is becoming too significant for citizens to ignore. Cliff (Christopher Maikish), is a bright-eyed American novelist hoping international travel will inspire his muse. A chance encounter with a man named Ernst (John Collela) on the train leads him to a cheap room at a boarding house run by Fräulein Schneider (June Carryl), and from there to the Kit Kat Club, a popular nightlife spot. The club, as well as the musical itself, are presided over by the mysterious Emcee (Alex Nee), and the show’s current star is Sally Bowles (Talisa Friedman), a British singer with a penchant for stardom, men, gin, and cocaine.
Cliff and Sally quickly become involved, and she moves in with him at the boarding house. Constantly strapped for cash, Cliff agrees to a couple of less than above-board errands to Paris for Ernst, but changes his mind once he discovers Ernst’s affiliation with the Nazi party. Soon, no one can turn a blind eye to the shifting political tides in Germany any longer. Fräulein Schneider finds herself in an impossible position when she receives a marriage proposal from Herr Schultz (Matthew Henerson), a kind, Jewish man who has made her reconsider her lonely existence, but she worries how his religious affiliation could affect her own life and business moving forward. Cliff recognizes that it is high time to leave Germany, but Sally is not so easily convinced, habitually running away from the glimpse of stability life with him in America could offer.
Cabaret is a musical that seems to work just as well in the 99-seat Celebration Theatre as it does in large Broadway and touring houses and even on the movie screen. Directed by Michael Matthews, every aspect of this production is meticulously designed to suit the character of the piece. Four small onstage tables for audience members offer the titular cabaret atmosphere, and the flirtatious ensemble members roam the theater during the pre-show, making patrons feel as if they are in fact entering the actual Kit Kat Club.
Celebration’s take is strong and packed full of talent, led by an impressive Nee as the Emcee. He manages to make a role that is a bit of a blank slate, despite the existence in pop culture of some very well-known portrayals, his own, and steals scenes even when his only job is to lurk in the background, observing events. Friedman plays Sally with an increasing desperation that builds nicely to her mid-song meltdown in the titular eleven o’clock number, and the production pulls no punches with the darker side of Sally’s story, openly showing her snorting drugs as she continues on her path to self-destruction. Her singing voice was excellent on such numbers as “Don’t Tell Mama” and the moody “Maybe This Time,” and maintaining Sally’s British accent was the only area in which she occasionally wavered. Carryl is giving a standout, heartbreaking performance as Fräulein Schneider, who in many ways carries the most emotional and affecting storyline of the piece. The orchestra and the opulent and copious costumes (Michael Mullen) are also top notch.
It may be obvious why a theater company would choose to produce Cabaret today given our current political climate, but in the final five minutes, this production takes the comparison a step further. As the Emcee strips off his coat to reveal a concentration camp prisoner uniform, a choice that first appeared in the 1998 Broadway revival, audio of news broadcasts detailing the rise of Hitler are played—but they do not stop there. The recordings continue up to the present day, highlighting other instances of fascism and discrimination, from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Black Lives Matter movement all the way to “make America great again.” Inside the Kit Kat Club, as the Emcee often says, “life is beautiful,” and it is easy to get swept up in that, not noticing what is important until it is too late. By ending the show this way, it reminds audiences that while escapism is fantastic and needed, we cannot become complacent the way many of the characters in this story did. It’s a chilling and unexpected choice that makes a lasting impression, proving Cabaret is a cautionary tale we must still pay attention to today.
Cabaret runs at the Celebration Theatre through August 5th. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, with understudy performances on select Wednesdays. The running time is two hours and twenty minutes, with one intermission. Tickets start at $40 and can be purchased here. Limited onstage table seating is also available for $75 and includes two free drinks.