This review must begin with an admission: I’m something of a Cabaret addict. I’ve seen the show in various incarnations roughly 20 times, written a thesis paper on the character of the Emcee, and performed in a production of it in London (playing Texas, appropriately). So for the Dallas Theater Center to put on a Cabaret that I found not only entertaining and provocative, but also surprising, is something of note.
Set in Berlin on the eve of the Third Reich, the classic musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb stealthily presents the atrocities of the Nazi era through a disarming veil of glitter and debauchery. Guided by the omnipresent Emcee, American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Lee Trull) meets and falls in love with nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Kate Wetherhead). As they happily play house, the dangerous atmosphere of the times begins to affect those around them, particularly Cliff’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and her suitor, Herr Schultz. A gaggle of ghoulish chorus boys and girls, swathed in tattered undergarments and tarnished sequins by costume designer Clint Ramos, act as a titillating Greek chorus.
Though director Joel Ferrell borrows here and there from the 1998 Sam Mendes/Rob Marshall Broadway revival, his own touches are so powerful that it’s easy to overlook the duplications. Like the revival, half the audience members sit not in rows but at small, round nightclub tables (order a strong drink from your server—there’s audience participation to prepare for). But from there, the production begins to take assertive steps of its own.
Wade McCollum commands as a playful Emcee, more devilish imp than frightening specter. Where Alan Cumming (of TV’s The Good Wife) made his American theater debut with a snake-like presence and sinewy physique, McCollum is muscled and powerful, strolling purposefully in and around Bob Lavallee’s scaffolding-inspired set with a lower torso that looks as though he swallowed home plate at a Rangers game.
Equally dominant is Kate Wetherhead as the perpetual partygirl Sally Bowles. Manic and jittery, her Sally is a flighty bird, pecking briefly at people and places before taking wing in search of her next fix. With a voice that would function just fine without amplification, Wetherhead projects a frenzied, fierce exterior that is heartbreaking to watch crumble when life once again tosses her dreams to the curb.
As the stalwart Fraulein Schneider, Julie Johnson is a formidable German dame. Playing off her nicely is David Coffee, adorable as the fruit seller who rents one of her rooms. Their scenes and songs resonate with heartfelt sincerity.
Dallas Theater Center has been noted in the past few years for searching out bold projects, whether that meant staging big-name premieres or tackling difficult pieces cast aside by others. With Cabaret, it’s demonstrating that it can score just as big with a well-known show presented with creativity and verve—the show’s ending alone is a potent display of risk-taking. Showing us something we thought we knew, only to surprise and delight, makes this show nothing short of a marvel.
Credit: Karen Almond for the Dallas Theater Center