I came to the Cabaret with no particular expectations. I had a vague idea that it was set in pre-war Berlin and there was a cabaret nightclub involved. And, of course, we all know the theme song, ‘Come to the cabaret, old chum, life is a cabaret…’ courtesy of the 1972 movie rendition starring Liza Minnelli.
Sounds like a bit of fun, right?
I was not expecting the sucker-punch of emotional impact that the latest David M. Hawkins production of Cabaret delivered.
Nor was I expecting to walk away from the evening with a deep sense of foreboding that if you replaced the term ‘Jew’ with ‘Muslim’, we appear to be living through a 21st century version of Cabaret.
The politics of Cabaret
Cabaret is set in 1929 Berlin and tells the story of American writer, Clifford Bradshaw, who comes to Berlin to write his next novel but stays because of Sally Bowles, an English nightclub singer who ingratiates herself into his life.
It’s a musical that ends at a beginning – the imminent rise of the Nazi party. Clifford leaves Berlin, telling Sally it’s no longer safe and that they need to get out. She, along with other characters, choose to stay at the ‘party’ that was Berlin in the late 1920s.
If you know nothing of history, the ending will seem abrupt and inconclusive. We leave Sally Bowles and her showgirl/prostitute colleagues along with their homosexual friends and elderly Jewish neighbour. Prostitutes, homosexuals and Jews who would likely be murdered en masse in the coming holocaust.
For the characters who stay in Berlin – their attitudes can be broadly categorised as ‘I don’t believe things could possibly get that bad,’ (Herr Shulz – elderly Jew), ‘I know things are going to get bad but there’s no way out for me,’ (Fraulein Schneider – elderly owner of the boarding house) or ‘Imma just gonna stick my head in the sand over here and pretend none of this is happening,’ (Sally Bowles – who clearly states she wants to die partying, like her friend from England did).
Before he leaves, Clifford Bradshaw tells Sally that if she does nothing and lets the Nazi party rise to power without resisting, then she’s as good as supporting it. He makes it clear that she’s either against the Nazi party or she’s for it, there is no middle ground.
The message is as relevant today, with the international resurgence of fascism, as it was in 1929.
The performances in Cabaret
If you’re expecting a mimic of the relatively sanitised 1972 Bob Fosse screen version, you’re going to be a little disappointed.
This stage rendition of Cabaret depicts 1929 Berlin in all its debauched, fevered and poverty-stricken glory. Even the raunchy stockings of the showgirls (and boys) have multiple runs and holes in them.
Paul Capsis as Emcee was pure delectable evil. He absolutely stole the show until Chelsea Gibbs (as Sally Bowles) came on stage to perform her interpretation of the title song, ‘Cabaret’. The hairs on my neck stood up and I screamed myself hoarse in applause at the end.
I’d always thought ‘Cabaret’ was basically a happy-go-lucky tune that a showgirl sang, trying to entice others to come to the theatre and see the show.
To put it in context for you – Sally Bowles has just told her lover, Clifford Bradshaw, that she’s not coming with him back to America. She’s not going to marry him, she’s not going to raise a child with him. In fact, she’s just come home after disappearing for a night, having sold her fur coat to pay for an abortion – maybe the baby was Clifford’s; maybe it wasn’t. Even Sally doesn’t know for sure.
She shows up at the club drunk on gin, in physical pain from a pregnancy termination and in plenty of psychic pain because she has essentially given up on the possibility of having any other life than that of a hooker and nightclub singer in soon-to-be Nazi Berlin.
Chelsea Gibbs manages to imbue all this and more into the words of the iconic show tune, while my heart broke for Sally Bowles who saw no other way out of her life.
Cabaret the musical is now showing at the Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne. Book tickets at Ticketek.
If you missed the sold out season in Sydney, you can now join a wait list to book tickets at the RETURN Sydney season!
Disclosure: I was gifted tickets to a preview performance of Cabaret in Melbourne. I was not paid to write this review. All opinions are my own.