Set in 1931 Berlin, as the Weimer Republic was crumbling and the Nazi Party was on the rise, “Cabaret” is a disturbing, entertaining, enduring achievement in musical theater — one that resonates powerfully in 2018 as a cautionary tale.
Area Stage founder and artistic director John Rodaz has just opened his end-of-summer production of the musical by composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb and book writer Joe Masteroff, who transformed stories by Christopher Isherwood and John Van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera” into a multifaceted exploration of the insidious disintegration of a nation.
Rodaz, one of South Florida’s best and most creative directors since founding Area Stage in a tiny Lincoln Road space in 1989, honors the 1966 musical’s Tony Award-winning original production and the acclaimed 1998 Broadway revival while bringing fresh ideas to the piece.
Instead of hanging a Kit Kat Klub sign on the set, for example, he dubs the club where singer Sally Bowles plies her trade the “Das Leben Ist Wunderschön Kabarett.” That translates to the “Life Is Beautiful Cabaret,” a nod to a lyric in the opening number “Willkommen” (perhaps also to the 1999 Oscar-winning movie starring Roberto Benigni as a concentration camp inmate who gives his life for his family).
Doubling as the set designer (in that role he goes by the name “J.C. Rodriguez”), Rodaz puts the club’s name in lights upstage center, creating a place to hide the show’s excellent nine-piece orchestra (lighting and sound are by Giancarlo Rodaz). Cracks symbolizing Berlin’s ongoing disintegration appear like fissures in the frame surrounding the marquee. Underneath is a plain wall with a devastating purpose, one that becomes clear only as the musical draws to its somber close.
At stage level on either side of the playing area are dressing rooms for the club’s underwear-clad dancers (the lingerie-style costumes are by Area executive director Maria Rodaz). Above them is a painted cityscape containing doors leading to the private rooms of the boarding house run by Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, where much of the dramatic action takes place.
The story, you’ll recall, centers around British expat Sally Bowles (Marilyn Caserta), headliner at the anything-goes cabaret. Sally fancies herself a star, but once her affair with club owner Max (Luis Ibarra) comes to a screeching halt, so does her career. Broke, she talks her way into the life of Berlin newcomer Clifford Bradshaw (Ryan Bauta), an American writer drawn to the city’s colorful bawdiness (not to mention lovers of both genders).
Things end badly for the couple. Ditto for their landlady Fräulein Schneider (Isabelia Duran), who abruptly cancels her engagement to fruit vendor Herr Schultz (David Kwiat) after rising Nazi Party member Ernst Ludwig (Michael Leyte-Vidal) makes it clear what she would be risking in marrying a Jew.
The show’s familiar, wry musical numbers take place in the club, where the Emcee (Giogio Volpe) is host, participant and provocateur. After kicking things off with “Willkommen,” he is featured as the lucky man in the middle of ”Two Ladies,” as the lascivious leader in “Money,” as the gorilla-besotted suitor in “If You Could See Her” (with its offensive shocker of a final line), as the singer of a haunting “I Don’t Care Much.”
Caserta, who started as an Area Stage Conservatory student and is now an Equity actor based in New York, is the performer who shines brightest in this “Cabaret.” She belts with the best of ‘em on “Mein Herr,” “Maybe This Time” and the title song. She dances up a storm (the fine choreography is by Rebecca Ashton, who also plays one of the Kit Kat Girls), and she conveys Sally’s appeal, her nearly unsinkable optimism and her considerable flaws.
Caserta’s castmates have talent, particularly as singers and dancers, but with a few exceptions they’re young performers who have come out of Area’s conservatory program, are in college or are fairly recent grads. In some cases, their nerves show (the wiry Volpe has that problem at the start of the show); in others, they register as wrong or too young for their roles (Bauta, for instance, seems uncomfortable as Cliff and never really clicks with Caserta’s Sally).
Two standouts, however, are Katie Duerr as Fräulein Kost, the tenant who pays her rent by inviting a succession of sailors to her room, and Kwiat as Herr Schultz.
Duerr, who is also the show’s musical director, looks like a figure out of a period painting, and she is haunting as she plays the accordion and sings the show’s Nazi youth anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Kwiat, a seasoned Carbonell Award-winning actor, brings a rich tenderness to his portrayal of a man whose lack of worry about the gathering Nazi storm will soon enough have fatal consequences.
Though Area’s “Cabaret” isn’t a flawless production, the messages and the music of the show are soundly delivered. And as audiences who seek it out will discover, those themes — about prejudice, persecution, a capsizing society and more — are as chillingly relevant as ever.
If you go
- What: ‘Cabaret’
- Where: Area Stage Company, 1560 S. Dixie Hwy., Coral Gables
- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 26.
- Cost: $15-$35
- Information: 305-666-2078 or areastagecompany.com