A voluptuous woman in black sits at a table murmuring into a telephone. Swiveling in her chair in an enticing "come get me, I'm yours" display, she winks and waves, blowing kisses into the audience. The lights dim to black as her caller resists her bait. Then, boom! Suddenly red and blue stage lights beam up, bathing the set and audience in intoxicating pools of crimson and azure. We're suddenly there, not just an audience, but wine-sipping, beer-guzzling guests at the Kit Kat Klub in 1939, Berlin.
The Emcee, a tall debonair man in tux, top hat and cane, kicks off the first number in a coaxing exhibition. His white-powdered face and stark features are emblematic of the era. "Velcome!" he sings, "leave your troubles behind. Life in here is beautiful. It may be cold outside, but it's warm in here!" We are seduced and taunted into this exotic cabaret nightlife.
Cabaret, the musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, is currently being performed by the Upstart Performing Ensemble at the Smokebrush Center downtown. It's one riotous theater experience you don't want to miss. But don't be fooled; beneath all the glamour, glitz and infectious show tunes is a gritty and unsettling underbelly. Bold political messages that resonate even in present day are woven into Cabaret's script. And in the aftermath of genocide in Kosovo and the often violent homophobia that still plagues our own country, the political themes dealt with in this production set in Nazi Germany are haunting.
Naked truths of our humanity are revealed through a dynamic range of characters in the play. Clifford Bradshaw, is a young, nave writer (with a suppressed homosexual nature) traveling to Berlin. He meets Sally Bowles, star singer and dancer at the Kit Kat Klub. Insulated by her various forms of hedonistic indulgences (sex, gin and money, money, money), Sally lures Cliff into her world of nonstop partying.
But when the fist of Nazi power destroys the engagement of close friends Freulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, Cliff begins to shake himself awake to the horror he's been denying. Soon he is a catalyst for the shattering of Sally's political navet.
The cast is superb. Garrett Brooks transcends a strong and dynamic character arc as the inhibited-turned-outspoken Cliff. Mary Maxine Fortner is a femme fatale as Sally, belting out lines with a surprisingly strong sound box and flaunting her cute Louise Brooks 'do for full effect. Dede Iozzi and Tony Babin are endearing as the older couple in the throes of an enchanting love affair that ends abruptly. Their childlike giggles and amorous fawning over one another in sweet a cappella song almost had me blushing. Ricky Vila-Roger is a masterful Emcee, with jester-like features and commanding presence. Hats off to the rest of the supporting cast, who carried off high-maintenance show tunes, which occasionally needed a little more "uumph!"
Director Babin makes a creative and effective choice to have the songs performed in the cabaret accompanied by pre-recorded orchestrated music, and having the real world characters sing a cappella in their homes. The concept allows the fragile, intimate moments to stand out in stark contrast to the high-rolling, soon-to-crash velocity of the nightclub scene.
A night at Cabaret left me feeling a bit stirred. With all the fanciful dance tunes lingering in the back of my mind, there remained a theme that reverberated more loudly: There's nothing more brave than to wake up and face the truth about yourself, regardless of time, culture or place.