Sitting in the theater during last night’s performance of “Cabaret,” which runs this weekend and next, I heard a boy behind me declare proudly to his friends that he was a “Cabaret virgin.” I felt an instant connection with him because I was one too. Well, you know what people say about the first time — it can be painful, enlightening or even, for the lucky few, enjoyable. But rarely can people say they experience it all. “Cabaret” provided just that.
Unlike the classic interpretation of Cabaret, director Noam Shapiro’s ’15 version features a play within a play. The characters are in fact performing the show in the German Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Holocaust. Nazis seated at tables in front of the stage watch the performers, and even the audience, as an authoritative and suffocating presence. Meanwhile, the “classic” play within depicts the tumultuous relationship between an American writer and a British cabaret performer in a Germany on the verge of Nazi control.
Shapiro’s version recaptures the solace and pain that has often been lost in other stagings of the musical. We cannot lose ourselves in the glitz and glam of the cabaret without remembering that all of the beauty is tainted by the presence of the Nazis. Shapiro will not allow the audience to escape from the truth or live in a fantasy world even from the beginning. The set, the labored movements of the actors and the racial slurs disguised as jokes remind the audience of the impending genocide.
Some moments in the play are so jarringly overwhelming and yet so subtle that they leave the audience stunned. In a well-choreographed dance number, “If You Could Only See Her,” the Emcee sings about his love, with whom he cannot in public because of political tensions and racial prejudices. His lover is dressed in a mouse mask, alluding to Hitler’s characterization of the Jews as vermin as well as the acclaimed graphic novel MAUS. Only in the final line does the Emcee reveal that his lover is a Jew. We’re so taken in by the bestial farce that the revelation of the metaphor’s meaning throws us entirely off, and leaves the audience breathless. For a moment no one knew whether to applaud or not at this song, which has as put us in the position of potential collaborator.
Nathaniel Dolquist ’15 owned the daunting role of Emcee. He inhabited his character, a comfortable and natural storyteller who mesmerizes the audience. He injects the show with color, pizzazz and much-needed comic relief. He stands as an everyman, the lone figure who absorbs everyone’s grief and embodies the Zeitgeist. Dolquist’s speech is unstudied and his physical comedy Chaplinesque in its combination of crisp execution and raw emotion. (He also does some pretty mind-boggling magic tricks.) At the culmination of the play, the Emcee is the last one to leave the stage, a shattered world where even the ultimate comedian has lost all sense of humor.
But Fräulein Schneider (Sarah Chapin ’17) and Herr Schultz (Dan Rubins ’16) steal the show. A spinster and a widower, they fall in love when they’ve come to think love is a young man’s game. They convey a subtle and endearing tenderness in a world full of promiscuity and flashiness. The two actors play roles four times their age effortlessly and develop a raw romance that the audience feels it’s intruding upon.
I left “Cabaret” feeling torn. I had just witnessed a hilarious and moving piece of theater. At the same time, the musical reminds me that every day we try to live our lives erasing what evils humanity has already perpetrated. It was like reopening a hidden wound of guilt and pain that I did not realize existed. Shapiro will not let us rest easy thinking we can forget and allow the Holocaust to be obscured by the glitz and glamour of Broadway. Part of me is scared no future “Cabaret” performance will live up to the ecstasy and the pain of this revelatory production. As they say, you never forget your first time.