It’s easiest to characterize The Refuge’s production of “Cabaret” by starting with the show’s final moments. As the lights flash and a clanging, violent version of “Willkommen” is played, the stage cuts to black. The lights in the Z Space auditorium flick on.
There is no curtain call. No one comes out to take their bow.
It’s a bold and disquieting move, one that exists in aggressive juxtaposition to the musical, which harbors the stories of carefree, upbeat passivity during Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany circa 1931. The show’s theme — which is expressed through cheeky nightclub performances that exist like a fun house mirror reflection of the show’s darker narrative — is that politics are arbitrary and life is one long, thrilling performance, an attitude that allows the Nazi party to creep in and seize control
By choosing to forego a curtain call, the cast and crew of this production are choosing to reject this theme. This isn’t just a show anymore — it’s real life. And in a contemporary political landscape that also facilitates the return and rise of Nazi political agendas, this statement feels more relevant than ever.
The original “Cabaret” was produced in 1966, but it has seen multiple revivals since then, each one considerably different from its predecessors. The base narrative remains the same — young American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) moves to Berlin and falls for English cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Cameron Joan Wise). Their antics exist within a few additional narrative arcs, including the goings-on at the Kit Kat Klub, which are controlled by the emcee (Larry McKay), as well as the romance between aging landlady Fräulein Schneider (Esther Mulligan) and Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz (Michael Champlin).
But with each new version, songs are cut, older numbers are thrown back in, the sexualities and ethnic identities of characters are adjusted, all at the director’s discretion. Putting on a show of “Cabaret” is a bit like assembling a Frankenstein’s monster out of musical parts — sewing together elements of past revivals and then, ideally, zapping it with the lightning bolt of your own original touch to bring the whole thing to life.
The Refuge follows in this grand tradition of customization, though it appears to draw most heavily from the 2014 Broadway revival. At times, this production could tend toward heavy-handedness (for example, at a dinner party scene, when the dozen or so characters present stomp loudly on the ground every time something anti-Semitic is said), but overall, it holds its ground. Sharp choreography, well-curated lederhosen and a strong set of actors kept the show afloat among the occasional weak vocals and less-occasional mic gaffes.
One of the biggest challenges with producing “Cabaret” is interpreting the emcee — he’s arguably one of the most complex characters in musical theater history and has made legends out of both Joel Grey and Alan Cumming for their performances. McKay embraces the challenge and transitions elegantly between joyous, clever parody and dark, twisted somberness. Still, director Daniel Shaindlin’s decision for the concluding moments of the emcee’s arc don’t land quite as well as they should, and it’s unclear whether his decision was made to add shock value or to build another thematic layer.
Wise’s Sally Bowles is not one for Sally purists. Her performance is squirmish, kooky and frenzied, with her long pink hair frantically tossed about — not exactly the aggressively confident and naive presence donning a slick bob that we’re used to. Wise leans heavily into Sally’s perpetual cocaine- and gin-infused intoxication when she’s performing her numbers in the Kit Kat Klub, which actually lends itself to a particularly unique rendition of the iconic song “Cabaret.”
And that is, ultimately, the greatest challenge of “Cabaret” — balancing the bold rendition with the faithful one. The Refuge’s production exists somewhere square in the middle of the spectrum, which then, unsurprisingly, earns it equal parts praise and controversy.
Shannon O’Hara covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].