An only child privy to adult conversations, I have a memory of the film, “I Am a Camera,” playing at Provincetown’s Art Cinema Theater when I was, say, seven, and overhearing my mother telling friends, “See that film!” The penetrating saturation of her brown eyes stood in for the exclamation mark others used their voices to mail.
Only many years later, in 1972, did I learn that the film “Cabaret” was the musical based on “I Am a Camera, ”both having been inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 “Berlin Stories.” Isherwood’s work was set during the Weimar Republic, the quicksand compromise acceded to by what Rosa Luxemburg christened “the stinking corpse” of the Second International and the Stalinized Third International (Stalin-Hitler Pact: September 1, 1939). Those competing political workers parties had liquidated their ranks in support of the Weimar, leaving resentment to find its bearings in the Nazi Bund, the new darling and Great White Hope of German finance capital.
The current touring production is a second stab at the 1998 stage version, and can feel Bowdlerized, depending upon when and in what format you first encountered a version of the story. For me, the filmed version was my introduction. Characters key to its nuanced script, such as Maximilian von Heune, the baron who swims unobtrusively amongst the refuse that washes up with the brackish Nazi tide, have been vacated. Substituted devices such as musical numbers that can’t compete with the original movie score feel like ex post facto patch jobs, and so the plot moves along in fits and starts instead of with the verve and swerve that lent the movie its unique tempo.
There are no priors for Sally Bowles apart from her claim to a British pedigree. Bowles is the female lead role created by Liza Minelli in the film, and played here by Andrea Goss. Script restructuring prevents Goss from bringing to her interpretation the vulnerability that minted the other side of the gritty token the Bowles character is meant to represent. Missing in action also is the Jewish English student, Natalia Landauer, played with such plaintive poise on screen by Marissa Berenson. Two of the film’s male characters find her irresistible, as much for her fortune and curried breeding as the malapropisms she leverages with wide-eyed earnestness. These, they indulgently overlook, while the baffled Sally looks on, uncharacteristically speechless. The now absent characters added dimension to a story deserving of its many shadings. They also rescued the audience with a comic relief that goes missing in the stage version, where comedy is exclusively ribald. This reviewer suppressed yawns as second- and third-round bisexual and threesome jokes spent themselves in not very quick succession.
Randy Harrison as Emcee is a showman. Unfortunately, he sports a costume that looks as though he’d purloined it piecemeal from the clotheslines of various and sundry female relatives. The resulting ensemble is cinched together mid-sternum with the tiniest, most unseemly black bowtie that no self-respecting Kit Kat Klub queen would be caught dead wearing. Fortunately, Harrison’s spot-on timing and bold doyenne sense of proprietorship, invests him and the show with a needed focal point. Did you get to see the multiple-personality “gotcha” interpretation by the incomparable Joel Grey? If not, you might never mourn the loss of possibilities the role opens up to a gifted triple threat performer, the actor who knows how to play a hand that is with every beat quicker than they eye.
In the film, the von Heune character works both sides of every street he crosses, but is most at home with the aristocratic layer cozy with the trappings of fascism. Since he is AWOL here, the reluctant hero Clifford Bradshaw, played antiseptically by Lee Aaron Rosen, must bear the full though contradictory weight of the romantic lead. He is the young and restless bisexual writer who is both drawn to and repelled by Sally. British in the film, this script has him frequently referencing his U.S. origins, so it is unnerving that he persists in speaking English—to the point of engendering cognitive dissonance—in an archly Canadian accent. What makes him sensitive, observant, and given to easy offense by Sally or other characters who are missing—is not written into the script—impaling his performance on the horns of a dilemma he had no hand in creating.
Most satisfying is the transformation of the Fräulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran) role from the screen version’s prying Nazi stooge to an eyes-everywhere guardian angel to the prostitutes, writers, and dance hall soubrettes who contribute their eccentricities to the Bohemian kuchalein. Schneider’s grandeur and sometimes conflict-inflected generosity bolstered by a love interest, the avuncular Jew du jour, Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson), supply the ribs for this tortured beast of a rework. Without them, it would be one camp scene after another, with bad costumes and a cheap set. It is telling that the two roles anchoring the show are the nearly new ones. Cochran and Nelson’s duet, “It Couldn’t Please Me More” is one of the show’s high water marks, with Cochran’s superb voice filling much more than the hollows of the house. Alison Ewing as Fräulein Kost, the resident redheaded prostitute, makes the most of her talents to rescue a role that could have otherwise gone sideways. Kudos to the Goth-costumed band that enriches the Weimar atmosphere with ensemble perfection and a couple of saxophone solos that rock the house.
The film adheres to the classical Greek diegesis theatrical form of telling a story about the world from a point within it (“Give me a point and I’ll move the earth.” –Archimedes). The Kit Kat Klub is that point. Its audience at first rejects Nazi interlopers, but as time goes by, we see more and more uniformed SS infiltrating it, until the final number, “Cabaret,” shows the club packed with them. The besieged world is a stage, and the Cabaret is its mini-me iteration. This concept drives the movie script. In this staged version, there is no such gut-sucking descent. The Kit Kat Klub is pure if flattened debauchery from cradle to tomb, and in no way forecasts a change in the weather.
Instead, the rooming house hosts the dreaded tread of the jackboot on the stair. We hear the now-menacing strains of the eponymous “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” at Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz’s engagement party, with the word “me” gratuitously punched up as if we’re too dense to “get” it. All the while, a minimalist two-step (referred to by Schneider as “beautiful dancing”) turns into a goose step. In the film, this dizzying dénouement occurs in a beer garden where blond-haired children looking off toward the morrow, serenade us to a pretty theme with a backbeat that grows more terrifyingly deafening with each new stanza.
The “Two Ladies” number, thanks to its musicality and deft choreography recreated by Cynthia Onrubia, is a triumph for the dancers and Mr. Harrison. The “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” number successfully leads you down the primrose path to Aryan supremacy. It is the echo of a fascist regime waiting to take power along a Jew-hatred axis. The song’s final line, intended to shake you out of your complacency, actually elicited a shriek of hilarity from one audience member, planting unintended real-time sui generis theatrics, and in its spine-chilling spontaneity was sufficient to justify the entire show, warts and all.