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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Uneven ‘Cabaret’ boasts great performances

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

Woodland Theatre Company put on the musical “Cabaret” by Christopher Isherwood, John Kander and Fred Ebb last weekend.

The musical takes place in Germany in the 1930s. The show begins with a flamboyant man welcoming the audience with the song “Willkommen” as several cabaret girls seductively dance on stage. This man is the Emcee (a brilliant Evan Murphy). As he sings “Leave your troubles outside!” to an increasingly creepy effect, it becomes clear the show will have some connection to the cabaret, though it is not immediately clear how.

At the start of Act I, American Cliff Bradshaw, played by a stout Kevin Parise, is introduced along with friendly Ernst Ludwig (Woody Gaul) on a train traveling to Berlin in order to get the inspiration for a novel he is writing. Although “Cabaret” revolves around him and the people he meets in Berlin, it is constantly juxtaposed if not outright interrupted by the Emcee. The line between the cabaret (dubbed the Kit Kat Klub) and the “real world” is a fuzzy one at best—the Emcee is omniscient and Cliff visits the cabaret frequently. It is actually at the Kit Kat Klub that Cliff meets his love interest, Sally Bowles (Sarah Beling). Or rather, she forces herself on him. Sally, having just been simultaneously dumped and fired by her boyfriend, the owner of the Kit Kat Klub, decides to move in with the dashing American she had met the night before. Of course, this is much to the demure of Fraulein Schneider (Veronica Wiseman), the landlady, who has come to accept everything that comes her way, as she points out in the downtrodden song “So What?”

This character set-up sounds like a sitcom in the ’70s, a sort of “Three’s Company” with Fraulein Schneider as Mr. Roper. She even has a hilarious scene in which she has to hide Herr Schultz (Kevin Groppe) as he leaves his room in front of one of her more promiscuous tenants, Fraulein Kost (Brandeis’ own Jackie Theoharis ’14). Even slightly more ridiculous, this scene gets even more absurd as Herr Schultz proposes to Fraulein Schneider in order for her to keep her integrity, echoing Shakespeare in “happy endings.” Meanwhile, Cliff and Sally are doing financially well with Cliff doing sketchy smuggling for Ernst Ludwig, and Sally pregnant with (maybe) Cliff’s child. Aside from Cliff’s novel not being written and the Emcee’s creepy appearances every so often, everything is going great!

Of course, the musical would have no backbone if that were the case. The last scene of Act I is set at Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider’s bridal shower. Continuing in the sitcom theme, Herr Schultz is drunk and Fraulein Schneider is tut-tutting. The stark difference between this scene and the rest of the play is Cliff handing another smuggled package to Ernst Ludwig, who is now sporting a Nazi armband. This is the first time the fact that the Nazi Party is slowly gaining power in Germany is mentioned directly. The scene closes with Ernst Ludwig berating Fraulein Schneider for marrying a Jew, and the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” playing while film footage of Nazis and Hitler is projected onto the background.

Act II is almost a morbid afterthought when contrasted with Act I. Just as everything is cheerfully bright in Act I, Act II is the inverse: Everything goes as wrongly as possible. Fraulein Schneider breaks off her engagement, Sally has an abortion, and Cliff gets beaten and dumped before deciding to go back to Pennsylvania. By the end of the show, it is hard not to be slightly bewildered at what had just happened. Act I was hilarious and the music and choreography was on the mark. Act II, however, was just one bummer after another. Even the song “If You Could See Her” in which the Emcee dances with a girl in a gorilla suit, wishing and moaning that the world would see his girlfriend as he does—this song barely has an effect even after it’s revealed that he’s singing about a Jew. In most musicals and plays, Act I is to lay the foundation and backgrounds of the characters for the audience to emotionally attach to, and Act II is for the real substance to happen. It was only by the end of Act II, however, that the play tried to solicit empathy from the audience, and by then it was far too late.

This is largely due to the musical itself and no fault of Woodland Theatre Company. The show was unsettling mostly in that it did not offer the shock, grief and horror a musical set in Nazi Germany should have had. Additionally, every mention of Nazis after Act I was almost a bore, especially with the only American loudly opposing it. The fact that Cliff was the only one to have a problem with the Nazis other than Herr Schultz was a major flaw to the musical. Not only was his character not sympathetic to begin with, it made the show seem even more contrived. The other responses such as indifference from Sally and Fraulein Schneider’s “so what?” mentality, however, really pushed the show forward.

In a musical in which the storyline is not spectacular, it needs strong performers to compensate, and that is exactly what Woodland Theatre provides. Brandeis’ Jackie Theoharis truly pulls her weight in the show, even as minor comedic relief. She saunters across the stage with such force and confidence, it is difficult to believe she goes to Brandeis. Bigger roles such as Fraulein Schneider and Sally are done very well by Veronica Wiseman and Sarah Beling, respectively. Their characters are the only three-dimensional characters in the show and Wiseman and Beling fill the roles and truly make the characters their own, both acting and voice-wise. In contrast, Cliff and Ernst Ludwig, played by Kevin Parise and Woody Gaul, are static and are not particularly memorable.

The rest of the show is blown out of the water, though, by Evan Murphy as the Emcee. As the musical progresses, the more Murphy appears and showcases the different talents he has. His voice is spectacular, just as everyone else in the show, but he complements his role well by dancing across the stage and at one point even playing the banjo with the orchestra. Murphy along with the cabaret girls is the definite highlight of the show, and what the musical should have been more about.

Although the story failed effectively to compel the audience even with Nazi overtones, individual performances from members of Woodland Theatre Company were amazing, and show great promise for their upcoming shows.