Culture | Sleaze in the time of Hitler

AUTS production finds tragedy in sequins and fishnets

When I think of the word cabaret, a stereotypical image of Las Vegas show girls springs – or, more appropriately, can-cans – to mind. Fortunately, the Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society’s (AUTS) production of Cabaret shatters that common conception, and shows that the musical holds a great deal more depth than I was aware of.

Cabaret is set in the sordid world of underground Berlin amid the rise of Nazi Germany, at a lounge called the Kit Kat Klub. As the show begins, the serpentine Emcee, played by Nicholas Allen, slides on stage, smirking at the audience with his pallid jowls and shining eyes. Clearly reminiscent of the snake in the Garden of Eden, the Emcee tempts the audience with his apples: the Kit Kat’s glamorous and provocative cabaret performers. In one scene, the Kit Kat is described as “tacky and terrible, and everyone’s having a good time.” This quotation embodies Cabaret to a tee, if you take “tacky” to mean sleaze and sequins and mesh, and “terrible” to signify the tragic existence of every single character in the musical.

The show weaves multiple stories together: the American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Adrian Steiner) and his tumultuous relationship with English cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Callie Armstrong); the inn-keeper Fraulein Schneider and her hopeless engagement to Jewish storekeeper Herr Shultz; and Ernst, the Nazi sympathizer.

Ambivalence toward politics is highlighted throughout the show, not only through numbers like Schneider’s “So What” and Emcee’s “I Don’t Care Much,” but also through the sheer fact that people are still throwing parties while Hitler is steadily rising to power. As the play progresses, though, the audience realizes that the apathy of the masses on the surface hides what is really the characters’ fervent desire to cling to the shreds of their former lives, Kit Kat Klub included.

Allen’s Emcee was as fabulously flamboyant as could be hoped for; he strings the narrative together like the pearl necklace he wears around his neck. But as Berlin is drawn further into the Nazi political machine, Emcee begins to drown in his own pool of depression. Perhaps because he is in love with a Jewish person – controversially clothed as a gorilla in Act Two’s “If You Could See Her” – or because of the drugs that deepen the hollow greys of his face and drag the vivacity in his announcements down to a slow, disinterested drone.

Although they both have excellent voices, the relationship between Steiner and Armstrong lacked electricity. Perhaps bringing the more intimate scenes downstage and closer to the audience would have helped, as expressions were lost in the large space.

In the directorial note, Julian Silverman expressed hope that the audience would “enjoy, love, hate, [and] detest” Cabaret. Despite minor spatial and character issues, the show was certainly one to be enjoyed, though with a more critical eye than the tenants of the Kit Kat Klub might have taken. After all, Cabaret could be the definitive post-World War Two musical, as the show captures the rise of Nazism and deterioration of extravagance that culminates in a finale that foreshadows the final solution to the Nazi experiment.

AUTS’ Cabaret runs January 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. in Moyse Hall. Tickets can be reserved online at auts-cabaret2010.blogspot.com.