By Emma Rogers, Staff Writer
This past week, the Academy of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA featured the Roundabout Theater Company’s production Cabaret, in celebration of the show’s 50th anniversary.
Cabaret is the story of Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley), an aspiring American novelist, who, in hopes of finding inspiration for his work, travels to Berlin, Germany in the early 1930s, just before the rise of the Nazi party. Upon arriving, he is immediately swept off his by Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin), and into the invigorating world of a seedy nightclub known as the Kit Kat Club.
The 2017 cast and crew does the show’s legacy definite justice. With the show’s opening number, “Wilkommen,” the Emcee (Jon Peterson), in the company of the spunky Kit Kat Girls and Boys, greets the audience with a sly smile. He is their ringleader.
The show’s first half is a gushing pageant of vibrancy and promiscuity, yet the characters and the relationships central to the film’s plot do not get lost in the visual effects. They remain intimate, honest and very real.
The first act keeps up this electricity with grace and gusto–that is, until “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” in which the Emcee crouches centerstage with just a record player, trapped by a single spotlight. The shift, though not entirely obvious or immediate, lets the audience know that there must be something strange and awful afoot. It is a moment both beautiful and unnerving.
With each musical number, the universe of Cabaret slowly begins to crack and splinter: the sounds of the orchestra become more guttural, and the Emcee struggles to keep up his grin. The first act ends with the crew of the Kit Kat Club bathed in jarring prison-esque lights.
Though opened with a fun and flashy kick-number, the second act feels like an entirely different show. The playfulness of the Kit Kat Club is replaced with fear, and a twisting feeling in the stomach. And, as fans will know, the show’s finale is like no other.
Art has purpose and power. It can be fascinating and fantastical, deeply addictive and accessible to all. Theater has the power to create an entire universe just barely inside the bounds of reality, one which can wilkommen you into its belly as it physically enfolds in front of you.
Cabaret is as much the story of its characters as it is of cowardice and politics. Particularly interesting is the character of Sally Bowles. “It’s just politics, and what’s that got to do with us?” she asks. While the rest of the characters wrestle with the political climate of the city as it starts to impose on their happiness, Sally Bowles runs from it. She is intoxicated by the lifestyle of the Kit Kat Club, where, among lace, cigarette smoke and jaunty music, you can forget your troubles. If only real life were like this.
Perhaps the reason why so many people find the character of Sally Bowles so unlikable is because she is unremarkable. She is a scared girl living in a woman’s body, barely making it by on sex, charisma and an admittedly flawed singing voice. As electric as she may try to seem, she is really just like anyone else—an average human being. And when her bravery is tested, she, like many others, chooses complacency.
Obviously, Cabaret was not a story crafted with our generation in mind. But perhaps its greatest strength–especially in the year 2017–is that Cabaret does not ask what would you do?, but rather, what will you do?. Art has purpose and power, and with that comes responsibility. Cabaret, unparalleled in craft, intelligence and overall excellence, performs its duty well. You will not wipe buds of hot tears from the stinging corners of your eyes in response to the spectacle of lights, the talented musicians, the singing, dancing or even the acting. The story continues to move us because, though set in another time, we are grappling with its central elements today.