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Theatre Review: Life is Still a ‘Cabaret’

Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre celebrates the long history of ‘Cabaret.’

By Entertainment, Featured, Series

Erica Stephan as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” Photo by Liz Lauren. Photo Illustration by Nidhi Shenoy.

There was a “Cabaret,” and there was a Master of Ceremonies, and there was a city called Chicago in a country called America. And it was the end world, and I was in the audience watching Sally Bowles dancing across the stage. And it was perfectly marvelous.

In 1966, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical “Cabaret” made its debut on Broadway, based on the 1939 writing of author Christopher Isherwood and the 1951 play “I Am A Camera.” The show is a glimpse into the queer underbelly of Weimar Berlin in the midst of destruction as Hitler was rising to power. For nearly sixty years since this musical first opened its curtains on Broadway, revival after revival have come and gone, all while complicating the meanings and narratives of the characters in fascinating ways. And in February and March of 2023, Chicago’s very own Porchlight Music Theatre brought to life their own production of “Cabaret,” which ties the ever-evolving narratives of the musical back to its original history in a groundbreaking manner.

For the last year, I have listened to every single cast album of the various renditions of “Cabaret” I could find. I’ve watched and re-watched the 1972 movie and countless bootlegs of multiple irritations on Broadway, West End, community theater, and even (often unfortunate) high school productions of the show. I’ve also read the original play as well as Isherwood’s original short stories. In short, I became obsessed, living and breathing every piece of “Cabaret” media I could get my hands on, leaving everyone in my life, besides my mother, half convinced that I’ve lost my mind. And why am I obsessed, you might ask? Because “Cabaret” is a time capsule and every new version is an addition to that capsule. It is a musical that showcases the queer experience and Jewish history of Berlin in the late 1920s/early 1930s which is then used as a lens to see how Jewishness, queerness, sex, and fascism are culturally understood throughout the later half of the 20th century and into the present.

So when Metro Hillel emailed me and other Jewish Chicago college students asking about interest in seeing a local production of “Cabaret,” I was all in. It was my first ever chance to see this show live. I went in expecting a re-creation of the 1990s revival, the version of the show most theaters do nowadays, and though I was excited, I didn’t expect to be blown away.

But then …  Porchlight Music Theatre exploded every preconceived notion I had by returning to the origins of the 1960s vision of original “Cabaret” director Hal Prince and the 1930s heart of Christopher Isherwood, all while updating the musical to feel poignant and impactful for a 2023 audience. Their theater company wove together three different versions of the script: the original 1966, the 1988 Broadway revival (also directed by Prince), and Sam Mendes’ mid-90s revival. By doing so, along with particular casting choices and surprising set design — including staging the whole show to be in a bombed-out train station as allusion to Hal Prince’s own European experiences —  Porchlight Music Theatre created a “Cabaret” like no other.

The show begins and ends differently from previous versions of the musical.  It was a shocking change at first, but one I’ve come to respect and admire. The ending of “Cabaret” is often a piece which is altered from production to production, but usually the beginning is more standard. They still do the opening number “Willkommen” and the closing “Finale,” but Porchlight Music Theatre’s production sets the whole show in a time loop of memory between the Emcee (Josh Walker) of  the Kit Kat Klub, and Cliff Bradshaw (played by Gilbert Domally/Tim Foszcz/Darren Patin, depending on when you attend the show). Cliff is the leading man who is effectively a stand-in for Christopher Isherwood; he along with the Emcee grounds the whole production. The audience is seeing a glimpse of what they have each become after the war, while the two of them get lost in memory, both good and bad, of the time they spent at the Kit Kat Klub.

We then turn back to the heyday of the Kit Kat Klub, where the audience is introduced to the majority of the cast. We see the Kit Kat Klub Girls all dressed in gorgeous glittery lingerie;the Kit Kat Klub Boys in sexy but androgynous outfits that evoke circus clothing and bellhop uniforms; Herr Ludwig (Josiah Haugen/Cam Turner), who will start out as a good friend to Cliff as he arrives in Berlin and will soon enough show where his true allegiances lie; and finally, the Toast of Mayfair and the woman the whole audience is truly waiting to get a glimpse of, the broken-but-oh-so-charming  Sally Bowles (Erica Stephan). Erica Stephan finds a lot of nuance in Sally’s character, and when she and Cliff ultimately part at the end of the show, you feel the heartbreak, beauty, and tragedy of their relationship falling apart as Nazism rises.

The casting is clearly all very purposeful with a cast of people of all genders, races, and body types. The characters are body positive and wonderfully indulgent in their queerness. Queerness and race are paid close attention to, without tokenizing any cast member. Cliff was originally played by Gilbert Domally, who brought an amazing amount of care and hopeful innocence to the character. After Domally left the production for his Broadway debut in “The Lion King,” two different actors came to replace him as Cliff: Tim Foszcz whose Cliff resonates with the youthfulness Isherwood had when in Berlin, and Darren Patin, also known as  Chicago drag queen Ari Gato. In all the actors’ portrayals,  the character’s bisexuality is also more prominent than ever before.

The last two members of the cast are Mary Robin Roth as Fräulein Schneider and Mark David Kaplan as Herr Shultz. They are an interfaith older couple torn apart as the Nazis come to power. These characters are often thought of as the B-plot of “Cabaret,” but they are the true  heart of the show. Mary Robin Roth brings a huge stage presence to her character. Her performance towards the end of the show of “What Would You Do?” is truly chilling. I also must mention Neala Barron’s performance of Fräulein Kost, one of the Kit Kat Klub Girls turned Nazi. Barron turns Kost, a character that is often forgettable, into one of the most powerful and daunting characters on the stage.

And finally, as we wrap up the cast of characters, let us turn back to the Emcee: the man who bookends the show. The Emcee is the character who defines every version of “Cabaret,” and yet he did not exist in Isherwood’s original short stories or in the play “I Am A Camera.” ‘The Emcee was a creation of Hal Prince’s experiences in Europe, and until the 1990s, Joel Grey was the iconically odd vaudevillian running the show. And then came Alan Cumming, as directed by Sam Mendes. Cumming turned the Emcee into a sexually fluid, dangerous and playful, queer socialist Jew who ultimately was in control of the entire show, as it was his story more so than anyone else’s. There have been other versions, but Grey and Cumming define the character. Josh Walker’s Emcee has vestiges of these other Emcees, including Hal Prince’s original inspirations for the character, but he makes the character entirely his own. Walker is threatening but gleeful, always in control of the performance, but rarely letting us see who he is outside the Kit Kat Club he runs. He is a powerhouse, and the production would not be the same without him.

Nearly every song is choreographed in a fresh and engaging way. “Don’t Tell Mama” and “I Don’t Care Much” are two that stand out especially for how they use drag and cross-dressing to enhance the meaning of the lyrics. The most shocking but ingenious of the numbers is “If You Could See Her,” a song that hinges on the Emcee dancing with someone who usually dressed as a gorilla, singing about their love that no one understands only to end on the line, “If you could see her like I do, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” However, Porchlight Music Theatre, director Michael Weber, and costumers Bill Morey and Tina Stansy, made one small change to this number, and in doing so the song hits the audience harder than ever before. Instead of a gorilla suit, the actress dancing with the Emcee is dressed as a mouse, an animal that since Art Speiglemann’s groundbreaking graphic novel “Maus,” has come to be a haunting image of how Jewish individuals were viewed by the Nazis. Chicago is particularly aware of this imagery, as “Maus” has been chosen as the  2022 “One Book, One Chicago Selection” by the Chicago Public Library System. 

The only numbers somewhat lacking were “Two Ladies,” which was done very traditionally without much serious change in choreography, leaving the number feeling a little more hollow than the songs surrounding it, and the well-known “Maybe This Time,” which, though beautifully performed by Erica Stephan, is a song that is hard not to compare to Sally Bowles performances of the past. However, Stephan’s rendition of the song “Cabaret” is wonderfully, intentionally out of control and breaking down in a way that leaves the audience on the edge of their seat.

Porchlight Music Theatre production of “Cabaret” is a true work of art. I have seen it an additional three times since my first viewing with the Hillel group. Originally, this production was supposed to close on February 28, but it was then extended to March 5, and again extended to March 19. If you have the chance, this is a show worth seeing, even if you are not “Cabaret” obsessed.

In some way, that is the most heartbreaking part: This is a show worth seeing. But without the prestige and money of Broadway revivals or the gimmicky allure of  the questionable 2021 West-End revival, I fear that this production of “Cabaret” will go unnoticed, a forgotten part of the “Cabaret”cannon. With no cast album, and as of yet, no bootlegs on YouTube, perhaps this “Cabaret” will only be a memory a handful of us will be able to look back on.

 

Sidne K. Gard (BFAW 2025) hopes to one day understand how to make their own monsters. They are the entertainment editor at F Newsmagazine. See more of their work at sidnekgard.com.
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