REVIEW – Cabaret – Broadway San Jose

I’ve seen Cabaret multiple times over the years and it’s always such a surprise to me. Not by the sexual content, that usually sticks out between viewings (no pun intended), but I still get caught completely off guard by the politics and the emotions that arise as a result of certain imagery and plot content.  As a girl who prides herself on her memory, the best I can conclude is that I’ve somehow chosen to exorcise a cerebral cleanse of the deplorable show content after each viewing. The problem is, in doing so I not only erase most of the plot, but edges of the other more pleasing elements are also snuffed out in the process. This may be a subconscious coping mechanism, but it also might be my brain’s way of playing to type and shrouding the memory of this show in deep, dark, metaphor. While I can’t remember if I’ve ever really “enjoyed” Cabaret, I will say I think Broadway San Jose has brought us a very intelligent, interesting, professional and visually compelling production worth a visit.

I was initially concerned that this intimate play aptly named Cabaret, which is often performed on a small stage or … yes, a cabaret, would get totally lost in the giant space of the Center for the Performing Arts. With the help of solid choreography, an expressive ensemble cast and a dual level set, there was no question in my mind that they skillfully scaled the production. That being said there were times when I was caught in limbo between the action in the upper (orchestra) and lower levels, which did create a bit of a fear of missing out scenario when the distance was too great to clearly take in both altitudes simultaneously. Indeed, this may have been an intentional choice – to create an ambiance of shadowed secrets and glimpses of activity furtively caught out of the corner of one’s eye. If intentional it worked, if not it was nothing more than mildly frustrating on rare occasion.

Perhaps the most interesting technical aspect was the lighting. In many cases it was used extremely well in transitions both physical and emotional. Light is used powerfully to create abrupt, harsh, stark, sterile statements and deliciously seedy, clandestine ambiance. I found it to be inconsistent though particularly in the first half. Again, this might be an intentional almost Brechtian choice, but I wasn’t at all enamored of the darkly rich hued pink and blue gels which obscured too much and seemed to undermine some of realism of this production. I suppose it could be argued that what is happening in the shadows should create a sense of missing out, but I wasn’t totally sure it was a choice.

Every other song in this show is a fantastic, hummable, entertaining number. The not as great side to that is,  if my math is correct, it leaves half the songs vanquished to the land of not-so-fantastic. Many of the songs that move the plot forward are actually not very remarkable, thus contributing to my Cabaret Recall Deficit Disorder or CRDD. Still you will be hard pressed to not smile upon realization that “oh yeah, this song is from this show!” as the couple of ladies behind me felt compelled to express loudly. Throughout the entire show. Seriously. Audiences, behave, we can hear you.

Clearly intentional and to a splendid end was our main gal Sally. The character of Sally Bowles is one I don’t always appreciate. Often times she self-deprecates with humor and dramatic stage flair, keeping us at a dismissive distance rather than showing us her real pain and allowing us to sympathize. Our actress in this production traverses a much broader and more meaningful arc showing a darker more depressive side without sacrificing any of the affectation and ‘perfectly marvelous” moxie that support the stage side of her character. Where I often feel Sally’s is superficially strong and comfortable with her circumstance, I thought it was admirable and a consistent choice to see far more weakness from her as we did here. Though ultimately a far darker, broken and more depressing Sally, it was for me, a fresher and more realistic and impactful interpretation.

Cliff was endearing and sufficiently irate when he needed to be and his chemistry with Sally felt appropriately unrestricted and simultaneously strained. They don’t actually get a lot of stage time to grow their relationship, so it always surprises me a bit how we get from A to Z so swiftly.

Ernst was my absolute favorite. I have to leave it at that. I can’t elaborate. Let’s just say he has an exceedingly well crafted slow burn that has a great pay off.

Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz just don’t get the best songs, but they performed them dutifully. They are redeemed by their heart-felt resolutions and again as with Sally, we see a much darker, less humorous, and more emotionally rewarding take with this couple.

By now there’s very little shock to the shock value when it comes to the free and fluid sexuality of the show, but I will say it’s particularly pronounced, raw and raunchy in this production. The M.C. was just what he needed to be as the ring master to the sexual circus and he demonstrated consistently he was comfortable with everything he was tasked with; vocally, dramatically, and from a choreographic standpoint. Don’t expect Joel Grey, but don’t expect Alan Cumming. He’s a twisted and lovely bundle of bawdy all his own, just as he ought to be.

Costuming wasn’t my favorite, but I do think it was appropriate…which is  amusing given that most of it is on the more inappropriate side of the spectrum…which just happens to be appropriate. All that to say it’s not pretty, but it shouldn’t be.

The orchestra was great and I particularly enjoyed the fact that our Kit Kat girls and boys swung both ways – that is to say they got to play in the orchestra on top and be a part of the action down below. You can take that pretty much any way you want, they would. And do. 😉 There was some volume, balance and/or tinny issues with the MC’s Mic in the first half, and it all seemed a bit loud at first, but by the second half the problems had disappeared.

My mind will have likely hijacked all recollection of this show by tomorrow, but if you’re a fan of Cabaret, I think you’ll like the deep direction this production takes. If you’re unfamiliar with the show or it’s not your favorite, I think you’ll still find it mostly entertaining and perhaps like me, more frighteningly relevant viewed through today’s modern lens so influenced by a global political environment that doesn’t seem so removed at times from 1930 Berlin. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a classic musical caught somewhere between pleasurable, satirical, comedic burlesque and unforgiving historical drama. Cabaret plays through Sunday, June 11th at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.

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