Taking on iconic material is always a risky thing, particularly something as well known and oft revived as Cabaret. But if there’s anything the 1966 masterwork has demonstrated over the years, it’s that it is not a musical resistant to reinvention. (Bob Fosse proved this with his 1972 film adaptation, as did Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall with their landmark 1998 revival). And while Moonbox Productions’ brand-new revival of Cabaret, running through April 28 at the Calderwood Pavilion, isn’t conceptually much different (they are using the 1998 version of the script, after all), it is full of such startlingly original moments that the whole experience feels brand new.
It is without an ounce of hyperbole that I say that this searing revival of Cabaret, directed and choreographed by the extraordinary Rachel Bertone, is the best theatrical production so far this year. What’s more, it’s the best Boston-born revival of a musical in recent memory.
There is hardly a scrap of this production that feels routine, which is part of the reason that it feels so fresh. Despite polite nods to the choreography of Fosse and Marshall (Those elbows! Those ankles!), the staging is new and inventive without being derivative.
The story is a cautionary one, if it can so easily be boiled down to anything at all, and what reverberates most deafeningly in this production is its characters’ political complacency in pre-Nazi Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. This complacency comes in all different forms in Cabaret: Sally would rather stay out of politics; Fräulein Schneider calls off her engagement to Herr Schultz, a Jew; and Schultz considers himself a German first and therefore safe from whatever rumored evil is coming their way. A country cannot turn its back on its own, he thinks. Inconceivable.
Among the many reasons that are given for either avoiding politics or for picking a side, all carry a “but her emails…” resonance that strikes just a little too close to home. This is particularly potent in an unexpected addition that Bertone has inserted into the final scene of the show, one of her several brilliant creations for this production. And when Cliff first sees a swastika on a red armband at a party, I was reminded of my own reaction the first time that I saw a “Make America Great Again” hat in the flesh and how I said nothing.
What could I have said? I’m not sure. But my non-reaction could have been straight out of Cabaret.
When Cabaret is done right, the show hits you like an unexpected punch to the gut. And although I can no longer count on two hands the number of times I’ve seen the show, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have been rendered speechless by a musical.
This is one of those times.
With devastating might that has to be seen to be believed, Bertone has found new ways for Cabaret to unsettle, though I don’t dare spoil them here.
Matters are only helped by the fact that it’s perfectly cast.
Phil Tayler is a devilish, sinister tour de force as the Emcee, who in this production is both our wildest dreams and our worst nightmare. He is more Alan Cumming than Joel Grey, but I dare say that Tayler achieves a depth that neither of his predecessors managed. As Sally Bowles, Aimee Doherty seems to radiate from the inside out, giving a performance of uncommon vitality and unforgettable vulnerability. (Kudos to Doherty—a terrific singer—for not insisting that Sally share her well-trained voice.)
The supporting cast is similarly ideal, with Jared Troilo, Joy Clark, Maryann Zschau, Ray O’Hare, and Dan Prior shining brilliant new light on even the most obscured corners of their characters.
This is a world with a distorted axis, the grotesqueness of which threatens to alter the very path of the Earth’s orbit, and this is reflected in Janie E. Howland’s not quite realistic, angular set. With two chandeliers forever suspended in mid-swing, it’s almost as if this Cabaret seeks to capture (to borrow from another seven letter musical that starts with a C) that “one brief shining moment” before the world would be forever changed. A picture postcard from the hedonistic swan song of Weimar Germany, the swinging chandeliers also bring to mind a pendulum, suggesting that everything might one day swing back around.
I think that you know where I’m going with the rest of this: Everything about this Cabaret is sublime. David Wilson’s sound and Sam Biondolillo’s lighting are vital to the success of the show, as are Marian Bertone’s costumes, though some of the Kit Kat clothes should be a little less matchy-matchy. And the eight-member orchestra, led by Dan Rodriguez, sets a new standard for small, local pits.
If there are any qualms to be had with Cabaret, it is that aspects of this production could stand to be a bit seedier and that some of the Kit Kat girls and boys seem too young and pure.
Nevertheless, Cabaret takes no prisoners and is unflinching in the brutality of its devastation. The show’s final traumatizing moments are a reminder of the power of theater and of its deep necessity.
If all the world’s a stage, may we all be so lucky so as to see it through Rachel Bertone’s eyes.
CABARET. THROUGH 4.28 AT MOONBOX PRODUCTIONS, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. MOONBOXPRODUCTIONS.ORG