The Short North Stage production of Cabaret at the Garden Theatre is sexy and dangerous, and at the Kit Kat Klub nothing is ever quite what it seems. The still-in-progress Garden Theatre is the ideal venue space for this production, the roughhewn beams overhead barely conceal silver ductwork, and the exposed brick proscenium anticipates the creation and fall of the Berlin Wall. The string lights swagging overhead create a cozy lighting element, and despite the verticality of the theatre, the actual seating area is small enough that no seats are ever too far from the action.
Scott Hunt’s direction is indebted to and inspired by Sam Mendes’ 1993 lauded and sexy revival. This is most notable in not only which musical numbers were used, but in the depiction of the Emcee as pansexual panderer (played by Alan Cummings in Mendes’ production), and especially in the number “Two Ladies” (with its silly sheet sexual escapades). Despite this, Hunt’s version still had his own distinct attributes. This is evident is his ending as the Emcee is not seen wearing the pink triangle and executed, but seemingly assimilates into the Nazi movement.
JJ Parkey as the Emcee is sexy and playful and still a bit creepy (but not a Joel Grey menace), wearing a black Clockwork Orange-esque suspender outfit. He consistently flirts with the audience, even sitting on the laps of audience members during the number “Money.” Outside of the Kit Kat Klub, the Emcee acts as voyeur and playwright, slinking around the set for all acts and often manipulating interactions. In a particularly cringe-inducing turn, Parkey’s Emcee gives off a bit of a pedophilic vibe when hovering over the angelic Hitler Youth (Hunter Minor, with his lovely and haunting voice).
The Kit Kat Klub girls (Cate Owens, Ann Glaviano, Dionysia Williams, Adrianne Krauss, Rosie Babington, and Karlie Sites) flirt with the lucky few who buy seats onstage at the “Klub,” and ceaselessly move between ennui and lust, world weary and all used up despite “each and everyone [being] a virgin!” The Kit Kat Klub boys and the mezzanine level orchestra (all also dressed as Kit Kat Klub dancers) add to the overall ambiance of the play.
Chris Shea as the American Cliff Bradshaw first comes off as the Everyman character, then becomes closeted hedonist, followed by doting fiancé and father-to-be, abusive boyfriend, and finally, coward as he escapes to the U.S. This inconsistency in character is partially due to the reworking of the character over the years, but his dalliances with Bobby (Jeff Fouch) are quickly forgotten until Sally’s parting words remind him to accept who he is. In some ways, we never get a real sense of who Cliff is, and when his character should be our entry into this foreign and frightening world, that is problematic.
Kaitlin Descutner as Sally Bowles hides her ignorance and naïveté under a façade of chatty overconfidence. She excels in both her Kit Kat Klub numbers (especially her naughty “Don’t Tell Mama”) and in her pained personal songs (“Maybe This Time” and the depressing reprise of “Cabaret”). There is no chemistry between Descutner and Chris Shea, but if he is gay and she is only seducing him for a warm place to sleep, this distance can work in their favor but isn’t quite played out that way.
The real heart and soul of the production lays in the beautiful and doomed romance between the spinster landlady Fraulein Schneider (Josie Merckle) and the old Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz (Joel Cohen). Merckle and Cohen are sweet and heartbreaking as we watch new love bloom between two old friends. Cohen is especially poignant as the grandfatherly and endearing Schultz, drinking too much Schnapps at his engagement party completely unaware that several Nazi members were in attendance. His last appearance in the play is both shocking and wrenching.
In another strong performance, Jenna Lee Shively shines as the prostitute-cum-Nazi sympathizer Fraulein Kost. While at first, she is only an annoying renter in Schneider’s apartment complex by the end of the First Act when she performs her haunting and steely “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” she has devolved into cruelty. She is countered nicely by Jason David Collins as the increasingly violent and threatening Ernst Ludwig.
Overall, the production* is a little rough in spots, but more so in an evolving sense (like the Garden Theater in renovation) and not in a destructive sense (like pre-war Berlin). It is a dark and sexy production, but Scott Hunt makes sure the audience is constantly aware of and anticipating the atrocities of World War II.
* I saw the performance on Preview night and there were a few minor technical issues. Parkey’s mic was not on during most of the opening number “Willkommen” and there were minor lighting issues for a few of the numbers.