'Cabaret': Decadence And Darkness At The St. Louis Rep

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

“Cabaret,” based on a book by Christopher Isherwood with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, has an involved provenance. It’s based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play, “I Am a Camera,” which itself is an adaptation of “Goodbye to Berlin,” Isherwood’s 1939 short novel set in 1931 Weimar Germany. Currently playing at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the production, in spite of a decidedly dark emphasis, offers a compelling take on an iconic show that never loses relevancy.

Nathan Lee Graham as the Emcee. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Nathan Lee Graham as the Emcee. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Taking place primarily inside the seedy and decadent Kit Kat Club, the story revolves around 19-year-old English cabaret performer, Sally Bowles (Liz Pearce), and a young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), who’s just moved to Berlin in search of a subject. Bowles bulldozes her way into a relationship with Bradshaw. As time passes, Bradshaw sees the danger in the rising Nazi movement while Bowles only wants to continue her life as a cabaret, old chum.

Overseeing the debauchery in the Kit Kat Club is Nathan Lee Graham in a stellar performance as the Emcee. Slinking about the stage in fabulous costumes by Angela Wendt, Graham conveys whole narratives with just a look in his eyes or subtle movement in his liquid body. The patrons pursue delights of the flesh, ignoring the distant rumble of the approaching Nazi horrors. Graham stalks the perimeter of the stage or perches on the set’s balcony, observing, but like the German people and the rest of the world, takes no action. He merely prods the story along with a sinister wink.

Mary Gordon Murray as Fraulein Schneider and Michael Marotta as Herr Schultz. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Mary Gordon Murray as Fraulein Schneider and Michael Marotta as Herr Schultz. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

A subplot involves a boarding house owner, Fräulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray) and her elderly Jewish suitor, Herr Schultz (Michael Marotta). Schultz proposes to her, which she accepts, but as the Nazis rise in power and antisemitism becomes more overt (someone throws a brick through Shultz’s storefront window), Schneider realizes that matters of the heart do not conquer all. Murray’s performance is tender and heartbreaking, and Marotta’s Herr Schultz is full of charm and imminently likable. They come very close to stealing the show.

Pearce and Herdlicka as Bowles and Bradshaw, give nice individual performances, but are a little light in the romantic chemistry department. Pearce’s rendition of “Maybe This Time,” however, is wrenching and soulful, and Bradshaw’s meek, frustrated, bi-sexual writer is interesting. Blake Ellis gives a fine performance as Ernst Ludwig, the exuberant, friendly German who morphs into the prototypical Nazi supremest.

A harrowing moment in Cabaret at the St. Louis Rep. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

A harrowing moment in “Cabaret” at the St. Louis Rep. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Michael Schweikardt’s set features an elevated walkway where the Emcee prowls, and directly underneath sits conductor Henry Palkes and the actual band, playing the all-female Kit Kat Club house band in costume, with male musicians in drag. John Lasiter’s lights set an appropriately moody atmosphere.

Director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has made an already dark show darker, thanks in large part to Nathan Lee Graham as the Emcee, whose sinister performance adds an underlying evil that threads its way through the whole production. It walks a sharp edge, often feeling more degenerate than delightful. The Kit Kat Club is not so much good dirty fun; it’s just dirty.

You’re not going to leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy inside, but “Cabaret” is always relevant no matter when or where it’s performed. There is always a rumble in the distance. The question is, will we hear it in time?

“Cabaret” continues at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through October 6. For tickets and information visit the Rep’s website, or call (314) 968-4925.

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