The characters of “Cabaret” are constantly referring to the title spot as the place to be, a world where their troubles go away and all their inhibition-less fantasies are in plain view. To get right to it, seeing Kalani Whitford’s production of “Cabaret” is like that, an experience you’ll want to share with as many theater lovers as possible. This is easily one of the most spectacular productions I’ve ever seen at the Historic Iao Theater.
Lin McEwan stars as Sally Bowles, a British singer and dancer at The Kit Kat Club in 1931 Berlin. As Nazism is spreading and citizens within Berlin become increasingly aware of the threats facing them, many turn to the distraction of the club. The sinister Emcee (played by Bennett Cale) acts as a cheerful orchestrator, a demonic Fagan who maintains the loyalty and indulgences of the club. An American reporter (played by Stephen Webb) becomes infatuated with Bowles but finds that she has no desire to put a life of decadence and self absorption behind her. There’s also Fraulein Schneider (played by Marsi Smith), the owner of an inn, and Herr Schultz (played by Dale Button), whose tender courtship comes at a time when Hitler’s regime is seducing and collecting more soldiers.
McEwan gives Bowles her all and allows us to marvel at how she’s both an enticing and frustrating character. We understand why many are drawn to Bowles, but also how a determined self absorption can doom those in her inner circle. Cale’s Emcee is an unleashed id, sex embodied by a smiling fright mask. How electrifying is Cale in the role? In one scene, he manages to not get upstaged by a gorilla in a pink tutu. The powerhouse performances from Cale and McEwan are the driving force of the show.
Button and Smith have potentially maudlin characters that they make endearing and real; the relationship between Schneider and Schultz is the real heart of the piece and Button and Smith give it so much tenderness, their journey feels especially painful. I liked how Webb resists making his character entirely sympathetic and suggests darker layers in his relationship with Bowles. Making her local theater debut is Madame Donut (yes, that’s how she’s billed in the program), the local Emcee of Wailuku’s Donut Dynamite; in addition to creating some of the yummiest donuts on the island, Ms. Donut has a stunning voice and is welcome new presence on stage. There are seven Kit Kat Girls in the cast and they bring both heat and a Greek Chorus melancholy to the proceedings.
Of the many musical numbers, I loved “Money” (aided in no small part by Ricky Jones’ stylish lighting), the fantastic “Married,” Cale’s beautiful “I Don’t Care Much” and McEwan’s emotionally charged rendering of the title song. The tonal balance of bleak humor, thrilling music numbers, historical dread and glimmers of hope is found in a cast and crew that honor what a tough, absorbing show this is.
Is “Cabaret” appropriate for children? Are you kidding? This one is for grown-ups only. One scene features sex acts comically portrayed in silhouette (I think the last time I saw this at the Iao was during the legendary, Eric Gilliom-led “The Rocky Horror Show” in the 1990’s). There’s also lots of peek-a-boo nudity and the rawness of the subject matter. Please leave Grandma at home with the kids and savor a true rarity: an adults-only musical with the smarts and emotional wallop you’d hope for.
The extraordinary set by Ally Shore allows a full view of the rousing orchestra, who are perched above the main stage and literally placed in an off-center picture frame. It’s a stunning way to incorporate and synergize the efforts of the musicians with the production.
Whitford has made the artistic decision to not have a curtain call at the end of the play. It makes sense overall, particularly when you consider the implications of the final moments (which are visually rich and open to interpretation). In addition to his direction, which is superb, his choreography is also outstanding. Note how clean and carefully staged the end of act one party scene is staged; the focus shifts and performances never lose their clarity. There’s also the second act opening, with its smooth transition from dance to drama. As a theatrical craftsman who can bring texture and vision to challenging material, Whitford is the real deal and so is his “Cabaret.” I can’t wait to see it again.
Cabaret plays at The Historic Iao Theater from March 2-18th. Tickets are available at mauionstage.com or by calling 808-242-6969.