In Trinity Repertory Company's current production of "Cabaret," the gilded proscenium leans menacingly forward, jarring and topsy-turvy. It's a fitting choice: This classic musical, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, is set in the fragile fantasy world of Weimar Germany and overshadowed by the specter of Nazism.
"Cabaret" is oversexed and overreaching, and maybe flat-out overdone, but Trinity Rep's rendition of the iconic musical is spectacular, in spite of an uneven cast. Under the direction of Curt Columbus, this production stays true to tradition while exploring new avenues of interpretation and meaning.
"Cabaret" takes place against a pre-World War II backdrop. It is Berlin in the 1930s, and the cultural life's a-kicking amidst the social and economic tumult that followed the first World War. Nazism slowly infiltrates the drama, at first appearing innocuous, but gradually increasing in power and aggression. Fascism is becoming a reality, yet the musical's characters hide in the cloud-world of cabaret, parties and performance. Some will eventually self-destruct, while others flee in disgust. At the center of this ensemble show is English singer and ticking time bomb Sally Bowles (Rachael Warren). The plot follows her ill-fated romance with Clifford Bradshaw, an American writer (Mauro Hantman).
While Bowles and Bradshaw play out their tempestuous affair, multiple subplots reveal the horrific reality creeping in. Facing anti-Semitic pressure, Fraulein Schneider, an elderly German woman (Phyllis Kay) decides not to marry Herr Schultz, the Jewish man she loves (Stephen Berenson). Meanwhile, bigoted Fraulein Kost (Janice Duclos), Sally's prostitute neighbor, considers servicing good German sailors to be her patriotic duty.
Both Hantman's singing voice and Kay's inability to keep the Triboro out of her wavering German accent left something to be desired. But Joe Wilson, Jr., as the Emcee, the embodiment of gender-bending cabaret culture, was a brilliant beacon in a mostly dull cast. He first appears in the opening number, "Wilkommen," instantly captivating the audience with his cutesy, manic, ridiculous sass.
At the beginning of the song, he descends a dark staircase, his profile in shadow. Only a suit and a hat atop a blond pompadour are visible. But as soon as he hits the stage, dancers in lingerie remove his hat, wig and jacket to reveal a shiny, bald head and a black satin corset. The ringmaster is here.
Wilson was the star of the cast throughout, showing nuance and range. He was the embodiment of the fantasy and frivolity that prevailed before fascism takes hold. The rise of Nazism breaks up several couples over the course of the show through harassment, anti-Semitism and fear, jolting people out of the world of night and pretend. The Emcee embodies that broken dream.
The show is divided into two mirror-image acts, the first dripping in sexuality and celebration; the second is its soulless, militant caricature. The greatest strength of Trinity Rep's production is the way Columbus emphasizes this crucial distinction.
An incredible moment of transition occurs at the end of Act I, during Schultz and Schneider's disastrous engagement party. After Nazi Party member Ernst Ludwig (well-acted by Stephen Thorne) arrives and expresses his disapproval of their pending union, everyone else in attendance joins him in singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." This song was sung sincerely earlier, but at this point it gains an air of horror. The cast become automatons, stomping and clapping the rhythm like robots, smiling. They've been brainwashed.
This passage from exuberance to despair is exemplified in the character of Schultz, the Jewish fruitseller. At the beginning, he raves about the "peaches, delicious" he has brought as a treat for Schneider. His voice is full of vivacity and excitement, fitting the moment in the play. But after he has lost his fiancee to her own fear of the Nazis, he repeats this line, and it rings false. At that moment, he seems to lack conviction that anything can be delicious or good in any way.
Even the orchestra takes part in this dichotomy. A full band plays in the pit throughout the first act, but for the second act, all that's left is a musician-less player piano.
Wilson shines while embodying this duality, and his role as master of ceremonies is crucial. During the first act, he glimmers, carefully managing the cabaret. In the second act, he is stripped of his powers and even his costume. He wears only a light pink slip. The cabaret dancers are out of his control, marching like Nazis. His beautifully controlled voice wails and whispers "I Don't Care Much," eulogizing the joyousness that has yielded to apathy. Wilson captures all of that in a genuinely tear-inducing moment.
The first thing that happens in this "Cabaret" is the firing of a cannon, releasing confetti out of the darkness with a loud bang.
In the darkness, at the end, a cannon is lit, and nothing happens.
"Cabaret" runs at Trinity Repertory Company (201 Washington St.) through Oct. 11. Student tickets are available from $10 to $20.