IN THE SPOTLIGHT Travers ad Sally Bowles. [Photo by Brian Gagnon]
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we barely survive fascist takeover. That wasn’t exactly the motto of 1931 Berlin, but it might as well have been, as depicted in the musical Cabaret, set on the cusp of the Nazi rise to power.
With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff, the 1966 Broadway production was based on a 1951 play adaptation of the 1939 novella Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood, which reflected his experiences there.
The Wilbury Theatre Group is staging Cabaret (through June 7), carefully directed by Tom Gleadow, with the choreography by Shura Baryshnikov snappily upholding the family reputation. Music direction is by Mike Savignac, who leads the three-piece band.
Isherwood was gay, therefore the story had to be heterosexualized for polite-society consumption. So when aspiring novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Joshua Andrews) comes to Berlin, hoping to also come to a novel-worthy life, it is the flamboyant but insecure Sally Bowles (Katie Travers) with whom he connects romantically.
She is a featured singer at the Kit Kat Klub, which gives her the chance to warble such naughty numbers as “Don’t Tell Mama” with the female ensemble, as well as belt out the familiar title song. Travers has a lovely voice and peppy presence, both of which are put to good use in the seductive “Mein Herr.” But the milieu is more deeply, and darkly, reflected by the smilingly sinister Emcee (Jo-án Peralta), whose opening song to the audience, “Willkommen,” perfectly captures the seductiveness of both the hedonistic period and the political masquerade.
Sally takes up with Cliff the morning after she is thrown out by her boyfriend, so her motivation comes across as opportunism rather than romance, with the text itself not bridging that emotional gap. Travers knocks us out with her rendition of “Maybe This Time,” with the lines “everybody loves a winner/So nobody loves me” powering up the self-pity with anger.
Andrews smartly makes Cliff an intense young man, though, so we know he’ll fall hard. Almost as soon as she arrives, Sally sings the lighthearted “Perfectly Marvelous,” joined by Cliff, and it’s like watching children in sunshine dancing around a maypole while dark clouds are rolling in from the horizon. And in case we don’t notice from the fraught financial circumstances characters find themselves in, the Emcee and Sally’s boppy song “Money (Makes the World Go Round)” is here to remind us.
Even without explicit foreshadowing, the historical context prompts trepidation, though things seem to be going nicely and everyone is smiling. It’s not much of a spoiler to note that by the end here the kindly man who befriends Cliff (and gets him to do some harmless smuggling), Ludwig Ernst (Brien Lang), shows up wearing an armband with a twisted cross.
There is another romance going on, for sentimental purposes as well as comic relief. Cliff’s stiff-back landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Maria Day-Hyde), takes up with a Jewish fruit vendor, Herr Schultz (Roger Lemelin), who courts her with produce. In the absurd disproportions of these austere times, a pineapple might as well be a mink coat, as we see in their amusing love duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More.”