Theatre Review: ‘Cabaret’ at SUNY Buffalo State

The precarious cultural/political moment that we’re all currently living in is, historically, not particularly unique. Looking across time and geography, one can point to many instances throughout history that were ripe with anxiety and hostility toward immigrants, racial minorities, religious “others”, and political opponents. Germany during the 1930’s is probably the most obvious example.  While our current moment is arguably not quite as dire as the pre-WWII era, the similarities are certainly there. So, right now is a very fitting time to put on a production of “Cabaret,” the iconic burlesque musical set in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. Apart from the glitzy aesthetic, catchy songs, and artistic peculiarities that make the show so unique, it addresses issues that are, unfortunately, once again topical.

. . .fans of “Cabaret” should certainly give this production a shot.

“Cabaret” is a 1966 musical with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff. Set in 1931 Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, it focuses on the nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, and revolves around young American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Julien Melloni) and his relationship with English cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Lily Jones). A sub-plot involves the doomed romance between German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider (Kaeli McGinnis) and her elderly suitor Herr Schultz (Andrew Ross), a Jewish fruit vendor. Overseeing everything is the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub (Shayne Jones), who not only interacts with the other characters in the show, but frequently breaks down the fourth wall and talks to the audience.

“Cabaret” is a heavy lift, and is a show that you don’t often see done by non-professional theatre companies for a multitude of reasons; it’s edgy, raunchy, very sexual, but most notably because it’s artistically challenging.  “Cabaret” lives-or-dies by the strength of the dancers, singers, and costume designers; after all, the bulk of the story takes place at a burlesque nightclub. Buff State’s production of this show has strong elements. Lily Jones was exceptional as Sally Bowles, giving powerful vocal performances and gut-punching you during the really emotional moments, particularly in the second act. Ricky Needham was equally strong as Ernest Ludwig, a character that has to be warm and likable one moment and frightening the next; his performance was very effective.  The show had several standout ensemble moments too, particularly the song “It Couldn’t Please Me More’ the crazily-adorable duo between Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider; and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, the chilling Nazi propaganda song that ends act one.

Understandably, the stuff that makes “Cabaret” a heavy lift (choreography, costumes, etc.) is the stuff that this production struggled with. The choreography, while exceptional in a couple songs, was very clunky in many others.  Several of the featured actors struggled singing songs that were well out of their range, and the strain was evident. Mostly though, the performance wasn’t edgy and failed to take risks. “Cabaret” diehards (and there are many) love this show because it’s in-your-face, daring the audience to be shocked or appalled; think just-this-side of Rocky Horror. The cast isn’t supposed to scuttle around or hurry through the gritty/sexual/intense moments, but really REALLY dig into them. There were a few moments in which the cast embraced the show’s grittiness, but overall it felt tame, safe, and often very awkward. But that’s what makes this show difficult, and it’s the stuff you can’t really train/practice for like you can acting, singing, and dancing. It’s possible that much of this can be chalked up to opening night jitters, so fans of “Cabaret” should certainly give this production a shot.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

Advisory:  adult language and themes.

“Cabaret” runs until Saturday, April 28, 2018 at Buffalo State College’s Warren Enters Theatre in Upton Hall. For more information, click here.