Monday, May 30, 2022

The Goodspeed Reopens with Cabaret

Aline Mayagoitia as Sally Bowles in Goodspeed's Cabaret. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

One of the most exasperating developments of the last several decades of theatre is the rewriting of classic plays and musicals, because the originals simply disappear – it’s as if they never existed. In the twenty-first century the alterations have mostly come out of an attempt to make the texts more palatable to contemporary audiences, which have a tendency to cheer every time a character in an older setting makes an anchronistic comment transparently inserted to produce precisely that response. Audiences are increasingly being manipulated into becoming Pavlov’s dogs, salivating when someone on stage in a show set in the forties or fifties sounds as if they’re describing Trump. Will we ever again get to see a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire that ends the way Tennessee Williams wrote it, with Stanley beginning to make love to Stella to distract her from the institutionalization of her sister Blanche, rather than replicating the unconvincing ending of the (otherwise magnificent) Elia Kazan movie, where Stella rushes upstairs to Eunice and the audience pretends that she’s actually thinking of walking out on her husband? It’s hard to believe that 1951 audiences didn’t see that rewrite for exactly what it was: a sop to the Production (Hays) Code Office. Now audiences, shamelessly coddled by recent versions of the play, are encouraged to believe that Stella has suddenly acquired a feminist consciousness.

By contrast, the changes made to Cabaret don’t come out of a striving after political correctness but a genuine – though woefully misguided – effort to improve Joe Masteroff’s original book. The Brechtian framework of the show, set in Weimar-era Berlin as the Nazis are beginning to transform it, and the Brechtian style of many (but not all) of the musical numbers have always been superior to the book scenes, which underdevelop the two main characters, the young American writer protagonist Cliff Bradshaw, whose coming of age the story is, and the promiscuous English club singer Sally Bowles, who moves in with him. In Bob Fosse’s great 1972 movie version, the screenwriter Jay Presson Allen went back to the two source materials, Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical Berlin Stories and John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera. She made such splendid improvements to Masteroff’s script that when Sam Mendes staged it at Studio 54 for the Roundabout Theatre in 1998, he tried to incorporate some of them, as well as adding some ideas of his own. The results pleased a lot of people, and his rendition was revived eight years ago. But it was, to use an old adage, neither fish nor flesh – that is, not quite the musical Harold Prince had introduced to Broadway in 1966 and not quite the movie. Allen made Cliff, now called Brian Roberts and played by Michael York, a repressed Brit who responds sexually to Sally (Liza Minnelli) but also to the wealthy Berlin aristocrat Maximilian (Helmut Griem) who winds up sleeping with both of them. It made a lot of sense – not just because Isherwood was famously gay but also because of the omnivorous sexual atmosphere of early 1930s Berlin. But in Mendes’s Cabaret, on his first night in Berlin Cliff runs into a chorus boy at the Kit Kat Klub (where Sally is the headliner), whom he met in a gay bar in London and with whom he had a fling. Since that’s the only evidence we get of Cliff’s sexual past, when a down-on-her-luck Sally moves into his room in a cheap boarding-house, it never occurs to us that they might be sleeping together. So when Sally gets pregnant and Cliff reminds her that he’s at least one candidate for the kid’s father, you think, “Huh?” Of course I understand that a man who has only had same-sex relationships is perfectly capable of broadening his horizons, but the idea is introduced so abruptly here that it feels like the play, not Cliff, is ambivalent about his sexuality. And there are other bad ideas, too, like Mendes’s insistence on ramping up the sexual component, as if he didn’t think the original would be shocking enough.

With all its flaws, Masteroff’s 1966 book is way better than the 1998 rewrite. But we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of seeing it mounted once more, so I wasn’t surprised to see the Mendes Cabaret at the Goodspeed Opera House. Okay, so be it, and God knows I’m happy that our beloved Goodspeed is back in business after the pandemic interruption. The real problem is that their Cabaret, directed by James Vásquez, isn’t very good. It’s almost manically overstated, with broad, knock-you-over-the-head performances from most of the principals. Of the eighteen John Kander-Fred Ebb numbers and reprises I enjoyed only five:  “Mein Herr,” one of several interpolations from the film (the choreographer, Lainie Sakakura, reconstructs Fosse’s original choreography); “Married” (performed by Kevin Ligon, Jennifer Smith and Terra C. MacLeod); Smith’s second-act act ballad “What Would You Do?”; the title song; and the first iteration of the Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” In this last, the Emcee (Jelani Remy) manipulates a marionette of a Nazi Youth, which is genuinely creepy.

Actually, the show’s problems begin with Remy, whose diction and phrasing are terrible and whose acting is so uninterestingly over the top that I was tired of watching him by the end of the opening number, “Willkommen.” (And couldn’t someone have taught him how to pronounce “messieurs”?) But the casting was a mistake from the outset, because Remy is Black. Naturally I understand (and embrace) the concept of color-blind casting, but Cabaret is set in very specific historical period, and the Emcee is written as a sort of demonic figure that, increasingly as the musical proceeds, embodies the ascending Nazi spirit. Hitler despised Black people almost as much as he hated Jews, so if you put a Black actor in the Emcee role, it’s as if your left hand, conceptually speaking, didn’t know what your right hand was doing. (It’s like Tim Carroll’s stupefying decision, in his 2017 Saint Joan at the Shaw Festival, to cast some of the soldiers with women, even though the play explicitly tells us that one of the charges against Joan was her wearing men’s battle clothes.) At the end of the show, the Emcee suddenly shrinks in terror from the advancing Nazi hordes. I don’t know if that choice was intended to cover the casting, but it’s just baffling – so the Emcee doesn’t know that the Nazi rhetoric isn’t just aimed at Jews? Anyway, he’s a purely symbolic character. He can’t experience a revelation.

Jelany Remy as the Emcee in Cabaret. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

I couldn’t find any rationale for Vásquez’s – or Sakakura’s – shift in the “If You Could See Her” number, which comes halfway through act two. Kander and Ebb wrote it as a porny vaudeville number where the Emcee squires a gorilla, defending his romantic feelings for her, so you think it’s meant to be a bestiality joke. But then at the end he sings:

I understand your objections;
I grant you the problem’s not small.
But if you could see her through my eyes
She wouldn’t look Jewish at all!

The turnaround is the genuine shocker: it’s not about a man fucking a gorilla at all but about how much Jews look like gorillas. Not in this version, though, where the Emcee partners not a simian but a doll puppet. So Jews look like doll puppets? That isn’t shocking; it’s dopey.

As Sally, Aline Mayagoitia has a similar tendency to play everything much too big. The character is theatrical, but you have to be able to recognize the humanity underneath the mannerism. (You also have to buy that she’s British; I’m not sure what accent Mayagoitia is going for.) But if an eleven-o’clock number can redeem a wayward performance, she does it with “Cabaret.” Her Sally begins shakily, as if she’d just realized the implications of walking away, in the most definitive way possible, from her relationship with Cliff. But when she gets to the bridge, where the singer talks about the untimely death of her whore pal Elsie, who died young from substances but left behind a joyous corpse, the tone turns taunting and defiant. In between the Emcee has appeared upstage and spotted her some cocaine. The idea sounds gimmicky but liberates Sally, who builds to a dynamic loss of control undergirded with bravado.

Bruce Landry works hard to make sense of Cliff, and as the aging landlady, Fräulein Schneider, who finally doesn’t possess the courage to marry the Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz, Jennifer Smith becomes more grounded as the evening goes on. (“What Would You Do?” dramatizes her choice to walk away.) Kevin Ligon gives a solid performance as Schultz, and Tim Fuchs is fine as Cliff’s first friend in Berlin, Ernst Ludwig, who pays him not just for English lessons but also for smuggling briefcases across the German border – until Cliff finds out that he’s been doing errands for the Nazi Party. Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design, like most of the sets I’ve seen at the Goodspeed, is clever and effective. Adam Souza’s musical direction is one of the show’s virtues; he also conducts the band and plays keyboards.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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