“There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany. It was the end of the world … and I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both fast asleep.”
Christopher Isherwood, “The Berlin Stories”
And so begins the book, published in 1945, that was the basis for the musical “Cabaret,” a love story set during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. First performed in 1966, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s music and lyrics along with Joe Masteroff’s book, have been given a much darker turn in recent years.
In Maine, no recent revival likely has been more cynical than the production being offered this month by the Midcoast Actors’ Studio at the Crosby Center in Belfast. Director Suzanne Ramczyk’s dark vision for a show about how Berliners ignored the rising Nazi menace fits perfectly with Artistic Director Jason Bannister’s theme for the season — Fear Mongering, Hysteria and Persuasion.
Ramczyk makes nearly every character in her 14-member cast complicit in the Fuehrer’s crimes against humanity because none of them but American Cliff Bradshaw (Eddie McCluskey), who’s in love with Sally Bowles (Leah Bannister), recognizes the evil menace Hitler turned out to be. That follows the interpretation Sam Mendes, best known as the director of the award-winning film “American Beauty,” used in the 1993 London production of “Cabaret.”
The biggest change from the original production is in the character of the Emcee (Jason Bannister). He not only performs at the Kit Kat Club but also lurks in the shadows during other scenes — a human cloud representing the storm to come. Dressed in a sleeveless undershirt, suspenders, bow tie and combat boots, the bald actor constantly unsettles the Belfast audience.
Theatergoers familiar with the performances of Joel Gray in the 1972 film version of Cabaret or Alan Cumming in more recent revivals, at first, will find Jason Bannister’s physicality startling by comparison. That is in part due to his shaved head, but he also is bigger boned, more muscular than those actors. He looks more like a soccer playing soldier than a dancer, but dance he does.
With each scene, Jason Bannister manages to slightly increase his character’s menacing presence until the Emcee represents not Hitler nor the Nazi party but those who waited and watched and did nothing. His is a chilling presence.
Leah Bannister’s live-for-the-moment English party girl Sally is delightfully seductive. Her portrayal of Sally’s refusal to pay attention to politics and act responsibly is riveting. and her final contemptuous version of the title song leaves the audience sitting in stunned silence.
As Cliff, Sally’s love interest, McCluskey gives a sweet and sympathetic but not a very powerful performance. The actor is good at portraying Cliff’s constant struggle to keep his head above water as he swims in Sally’s wake, but McCluskey often has trouble stepping out of his leading lady’s huge shadow.
Out of all the darkness dominating this production, steps Jay Holland and Kathryn Robyn as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, the senior citizen lovers whose future is thwarted because he is a Jew. Holland and Robyn delightfully portray the aging couple and their attraction to each other. Take away the politics, and their doomed love is the great tragedy of “Cabaret” because Holland and Robyn give such enchanting performances.
The six-piece band, led by Ruth Gelsinger, at times struggles with the score, but gets it right more often than not and never overpowers the performers. Under Gelsinger’s direction, the upbeat music often is a stark and ironic contrast to the menace on stage, which adds to the director’s intended sense of irony.
John Bielenberg’s set, dominated by a ramped stage and bar of the Kit Kat Club, and Peter Michelsen’s lighting design, make theatergoers feel as if the Nazi regime could fall into their laps at any moment. Every technical aspect of this “Cabaret” adds to the menacing atmosphere.
The mission of Midcoast Actors’ Studio is: “to foster an environment for artists to imagine and grow freely, create quality intimate theatre and inspire our community.” The company’s latest production certainly meets that mandate, but it also sends theatergoers out the door looking over their shoulders and questioning whether America is on a similar precipice as Germany was in the early 1930s.
Maybe the company should consider adding a phrase to its mission statement — “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This production of “Cabaret” successfully accomplishes the latter.
Midcoast Actors’ Studio will perform “Cabaret” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Crosby Center, 96 Church St., Belfast. For information, call 207-370-7592 or visit midcoastactors.org.
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