Distraction is the name of the game in the well-worn musical "Cabaret" as we meander through the pleasures of the flesh in order to not notice the horror that the Weimar Republic is about to unleash on the rest of the world.
In Berlin, as the movement fueled by Adolph Hitler gains momentum, the seedy Kit Kat Klub stands as a wayside for tortured souls who want nothing more than to have a good time, even temporarily.
The Dale Gutzman version of "Cabaret," which opened Wednesday night and runs through Sept. 28, is a dark retelling of a story that mixed sex, violence, longing and fear into two and half hours of mesmerizing theater. The menace of the play at Off the Wall Theatre is as intimate as any I have seen before. Gutzman crowds a cast of almost 30 characters into a space seemingly no bigger than a boarding house room.
It may not really have been two and a half hours because the initial 90-minute first act is a setup for the powerful, moving and sorrowful second act. And Gutzman, theatrical maestro that he is, holds the reins tight until he unleashes the hounds on a rapt full house in attendance.
The story of "Cabaret" is well known: An American writer named Clifford Bradshaw (Claudio Parrone Jr.) comes to Berlin, hoping to find inspiration to write his novel. On his first night – New Year’s Eve – he visits the Kit Kat Klub and meets the sultry Sally Bowles (Laura Monagle), a British chanteuse who packs them in but who is about to be fired, just because it’s time for a change.
Their halting love affair is on a parallel line with the affair of Fraulein Schneider (Marilyn White), who runs a boarding house, and Herr Schultz (Lawrence J. Luksavage), a Jewish fruit merchant. The two elders fall in love peacefully and without histrionics until pressure from the Nazis force the fraulein to reconsider.
The early going is filled with sex, teasing, tension and ambivalent sexuality. The music is filled with earthy meaning. When White and Luksavage sing the song "Married," the sense of commitment and meaning between the two people sparkles on the stage. White, who had a spectacular turn as Juliet in last season’s remarkable "Romeo and Juliet," has the vocal and acting chops to carry an evening of theater. She is a real treasure for this city.
A portent of what’s coming is the plaintive and marchable "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sung a capella by Karl, a waiter dressed in the khaki that will soon become an anthem for the Nazi party. As the cast joins the song, the menace of what’s happening almost overwhelms the audience seated in the tiny theater.
Once the second act begins, Gutzman puts the pedal to the metal and rides the shoulders of Monagle, Parrone, White and a magnificent Jeremy C. Welter, who plays the creepy Emcee, to an uncomfortable place where we all have to face our fears and wonder how far removed from Nazi Germany we really are.
The point is driven home poignantly in the number "If You Could See Her," sung by Welter with Sandy Lewis as his prop. Lewis is dressed as your basic Teutonic maid, complete with blonde braids, dirndl skirt and blouse. She is a singularly unattractive presence, and Welter jabs the audience with the fact that appearances are not always what they seem. He dances her around the floor as she reluctantly cooperates. You can sense the evil he’s got inside, and I found myself moving the the edge of my seat to see it happen.
He begins to strip her clothes until she is clothed in just her slip. Her scrawny arms and impassioned face bring to mind nothing so much as a Holocaust survivor. He rips off her blonde wig to reveal the thinning hair of a woman at the edge. Finally, as he paints garish rouge on her cheeks and lips, he draws misshapen a Star of David on her sallow chest as he glares at his audience.
"I understand your objection
I grant you the problem's not small
But if you could see her through my eyes
She wouldn't look Jewish at all."
After his shaming, he leaves her alone on the stage, tears wracking her frail body, until she finally pulls up her skirt and drags herself away. The moveable tableau takes place just feet from the audience and the up close and personal quality adds to the horror, sympathy and embarrassment of what has just taken place.
The climax to the play is an unusual one for anybody who remembers – and who doesn’t – the movie and Liza Minnelli's Oscar-winning rendition of Sally Bowles.
In the final number, "Cabaret," Minnelli used it as almost an anthem of determination and decision making. Monagle, who has a rugged and precise voice that sometimes reaches a limit on the high end, gives this song a new and fatalistic meaning. It’s almost as if it takes a tear to rip these words out of her.
When she asks, "What good is sitting alone in your room," in this version, it’s not a challenge to her audience but a wonder for herself. Monagle rips your heart out with this one, and she delivers a pathos both surprising and awfully believable.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.