Final UT show of the quarter provides glitz, glam, and Nazis galore

By Devin Cain

“What good is sitting alone in your room?” she’ll ask you, and having just come from your room, six feet deep in some book and without a “proper” bath in the last four days, because you go to school here and it’s the time of year for studying, you won’t be able to make sense of these words. But this woman, this Fraulein Sally Bowles, will explain it for you coaxingly: “Come hear the music play, Life is a cabaret, old chum, come to the cabaret!” Ah, you’ll say, that’s right! I’m an old chum, a regular whippersnapper am I.

University Theater’s wonderful little performance of Cabaret this weekend in the First Floor Theater is just good enough to scrape away the cold stone accumulating on your heart from impending finals and the promise of a Chicago “winter wonderland,” and leave you with a big damn smirk curling the corners of your lips. Here’s the bones: it’s a lot of fun.

The musical, adapted from one of Christopher Isherwood’s recollections of Weimar Berlin as Nazism was just taking root, ostensibly follows the path of an aspiring American writer in Germany (Greg Beam as Cliff Bradshaw), his love affair with the British cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Laura Schechter), and their relationship to the changing culture and politics reshaping Berlin. The play, and in this production the physical set, are split between the cabaret in question (the Kit Kat Club) and Cliff’s room in a busy building. Cliff and Sally’s tryst is shaped both by the cabaret, with its delight in national issues and corresponding cast of characters, and their interaction with the goodly people of Cliff’s building, who are all trying to hang onto their places in society.

In a stand-up use of the small area the First Floor Theater offers, director Deborah Wolfson and her crew transform the audience into the patrons of the cabaret, creating an intimate and engaging space. The back of the stage serves as Cliff’s room, separated only by a sheer curtain that allows for an appropriate cohabitation and mingling of the two settings. The scenes are generally of two ilk: either rowdy nightclub acts in the former space, or more earnest dialogues and songs in the latter. Both reflect the story of the wavering romance between Sally and Cliff as it moves from carefree days to the political reality of Nazism.

Of course, it’s the way the actors fill these spaces that really counts; the cabaret, after all, relies on the skill and appeal of its performers. Across the board, the performances are very good, rather great in places. Doug Rubino, as the bizarre, hyper-sexual emcee, deserves a boatload of credit for his stabilizing presence throughout the play. He plays the part of host sublimely and intensely, his singing and dancing anchoring the different directions of the narrative. Equally compelling is Reid Aronson as a winsome Jewish fruit-seller (I’m a sucker for fruit-sellers), whose relationship with the landlady Fraulein Schneider (Fay LaManna) crumbles in the face of imminent Jewish persecution.

As this latter character might indicate, the musical, despite its delightfully bawdy humor, peeks into a world of deeper questions, none of which it successfully answers. The decadence of the cabaret itself presents a sharp contrast to the hand-to-mouth world of the tenant building. These spheres flow back into each other, making it nearly impossible to condemn anyone within the confines of the drama.

This rift/suture creates tension for the audience as well. What happens right in front of us is for the most part cabaret sequences—the cavorting, bellowing and revealed bodies of guys and gals. Even if the dancing is sometimes stiff and less than fluid, the excess of movement and excitement still threatens to overshadow Sally and Cliff, whose space behind the curtain feels almost marginal at times. One sphere is unapologetic, ribald entertainment, while the other confronts some of the issues created by this decadence. The desire to have six partially clothed women (or three gentlemen for that matter) dancing about is not easily quelled. While I genuinely liked the setup of the stage, this clash of two worlds was the weakness the show belied.

I’m inclined to let this more serious discussion drop, however, for what’s really important here is the performance of Cabaret. While the piece as a whole is never allowed to slip into mere titillation, these bawdy sequences are the best part of the musical, and the stage is perfectly constructed to enhance its effect, intimacy and interaction.

Point in hand: I was “warned” that I might be touched by the girls, which was almost true, except that it was the boys who mostly rubbed my thighs. Before you fetch your violin, this is not a complaint—touching is touching, don’t get me wrong (I suspect, however, that the girls reserve their affection for the paying customers). But you get the idea—if you come with the right spirit, maybe a little drunk, maybe a lot drunk, the performance is a damn jolly good time, impending war or not. Which—and I think the trajectory of the play and the staging decisions support this fatalistic, reckless claim—is what really matters.