Cabaret. Book by Joe Masteroff. Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander. Directed by Jim McMullen. Canberra Philharmonic Society. Erindale Theatre. Until July 26.. Bookings: philo.org.au
The musical Cabaret makes a welcome return in the capable hands of director Jim McMullen and Canberra Philharmonic Society.
It’s a bleak old piece, set in Berlin in the early 1930s on the cusp of the Nazi takeover, where American would-be writer Cliff (Mat Chardon O’Dea) meets English singer Sally Bowles (Kelly Roberts) at the seedy but satirical Kit Kat Klub, dominated by the sardonic Emcee (Angel Dolejsi).Cliff and Sally fall in love after she moves in with him at the rooming house run by Fraulein Schneider (Ros Engledow). Fraulein Schneider’s running battle with the morals of lodger Fraulein Kost (Kitty McGarry), who is hospitable to a string of sailors, is undercut when she is courted by a Jewish fruiterer, Herr Schultz (Ian Croker).
A knowledge of history can tell you where all of this is likely to be heading and a knowledge of musicals will have you waiting for the show’s great songs. The cast doesn't disappoint here and the orchestra conducted by McMullen drives the show with expert energy from its darkened loft position.
Dolejsi’s Emcee does not follow the Joel Grey stylisation familiar from the film but is a skilful chameleon who blends with whatever is going on until at the end he identifies with the most oppressed in a way it would be a pity to reveal.
At the show’s centre there’s a thoughtful Cliff by Chardon O’Dea. Roberts' Sally could use a little more vulnerability but she has a suitably reckless presence. Both handle the songs well, and their relationship, including Cliff’s sexual ambivalence, is done with some real sensitivity.
But this production does not quite catch the sense of an era that was a little less visually pretty than it appears here. The Kit Kat Klub could use a dose of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis and the Nazis could be more imposing, particularly when they start to throw their weight around.
However, Engledow’s Fraulein Schneider is wonderfully Brechtian and deeply touching, particularly in her most uncompromising numbers about the realities of her life, So What? and What Would You Do? She and Croker’s gentlemanly Herr Schultz, who to the last denies poignantly that the Nazis are a threat, parallel Sally and Cliff and bring a disturbing depth to the story.
And the moment at the end of the first half when the Nazis truly reveal the depth of their immoral power reveals why the set is so massive as it begins to echo the fascist architecture of the Nuremberg rallies.
This is a musical with a sense of history as well as a dark humour and the power to disturb comfortable thinking. It should not be approached with a light heart and Canberra Philharmonic Society’s production ultimately shows why.