Christopher Isherwood's memoirs of life in Weimar Germany just before the takeover by Hitler and the Nazis long ago took on a life of their own, especially after minor character Sally Bowles rose to fame in the musical version, Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. In the decades since, the piece has seen many revisions and revivals, and it gets a terrific interpretation from Frank Theatre that lets all of the work's contradictions—especially the humor and frivolity in the face of the growing Nazi darkness that would soon envelop Germany and the world—play themselves out on the Centennial Showboat's stage.
Bradley Greenwald (center) plays the pivotal role of Emcee
Cabaret Centennial Showboat, Harriet Island
Through March 27; 651.227.1100
We mainly see 1931 Berlin through the eyes of Cliff, a young American looking for inspiration for his novel. In the capital city, he finds a libertine world illustrated by the Kit Kat Klub, a nightclub where you can find the girl or boy of your choice, have a few drinks, and watch the stage show, all carefully orchestrated by the Emcee.
Cliff also meets larger-than-life singer Sally Bowles at the Klub, who quickly worms her way into his life by moving into his room at a nearby boardinghouse, run by spinster Fraulein Schneider. Other residents of the house include possible prostitute Fraulein Kost and elderly Jewish grocer Herr Schultz.
Sally Bowles may live the largest, and observer Cliff is the supposed central character, but Cabaret lives and dies on the quality of its Emcee. With Bradley Greenwald in the role, there are no worries here. Both a versatile actor and singer, Greenwald is the perfect choice for our guide through the anything-goes world of 1931 Berlin, whether he is presenting bawdy tunes at the Kit Kat Klub or serving as a guide through the twisting emotions of the main characters.
After all, this is a piece that starts as a rather jolly romp with a pair of potential love stories (Cliff and Sally; Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider) and descends deeper and deeper into darkness until love is destroyed by bigotry, Sally seems to be on the way to an early grave, and Cliff escapes from the city beaten and a little wiser. Through it all, Greenwald comments on the action with things as simple as an askance look, a vocal inflection, or a gesture to one of the characters that says, "These crazy kids are nuts!"
Greenwald's framework gives the rest of the cast plenty of support. Sara Richardson makes Sally Bowles as manically cheerful and over-the-top as possible. It does grate, but that's intentional. Bowles is a character all about the surface, and when she's forced to look inward, she finds nothing there but pain and anger. That leads to an amazing version of the show's title song, in which Richardson lets it all out in a defiant blaze of rage.
On the other hand, Cliff is meant to be mainly an observer, but Max Wojtanowicz doesn't give enough for us to really care about him or his concerns. It's the rare flat moment in an otherwise excellent set of acting from the company.
Along with Greenwald, the real stars here are Melissa Hart as Fraulein Schneider and Patrick Bailey as Herr Schultz. The two have great chemistry and bring a lot out of characters in limited time onstage. The pure pleasure they bring to songs like "Marriage," followed by the loss of their love due to the growing racism that surrounds them, works wonders throughout the show. It's easy to overplay the musical's dark heart, but director Wendy Knox employs a deft hand, letting the story play out with only occasional outside commentary. I've seen productions where the stage is adorned with Nazi flags during the Act One closer, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." Here, a single swastika armband tells us everything we need to know about the country's changing mood and the sword that looms over every character's head.