Not Just Jazz Hands

Cabaret at the Trinity Rep

by by Marisa Calleja

illustration by by Rebecca Levinson

When I told people I was seeing Cabaret on Saturday, there were a few snickers and a few raised eyebrows. One person mimed jazz hands. After all, this is a play associated with Liza Minnelli.

But what I found at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Theater was touching and restrained. It simmered and stewed and finally bubbled over into a lengthy and disturbing climax. This is a production that knows its strengths, and times them accordingly.

Cabaret is a story of love in a time of fascism. It tests whether love is strong enough to overcome the trials of living in an oppressive society. (Spoiler alert: It can’t.) The play follows Clifford Bradshaw (Mauro Hantman), an American writer who comes to Berlin to write a novel. On his first night in the city, he meets Sally Bowles (Rachel Warren), a British nightclub singer determined to live life to the fullest. She quickly moves in with him after being thrown out by a jealous boyfriend.

Set in 1930 and first staged in 1966, the central relationship in Cabaret could easily be rewritten into a Zooey Deschanel movie. Sally is quirky and damaged—“You are the world’s craziest girl!” Cliff exclaims with an almost child-like earnestness. Cliff is self-righteous and insecure. In many ways sad-and-wild Sally only exists as a force to inspire him in his quest to write  a novel. I rooted for these two crazy kids trying to get by in pre-War Berlin with maternal concern and a sense that their relationship would quickly go down in flames.

All around them, their friends and neighbors begin to feel the sting of Nazi control. The owner of the boardinghouse in which Sally and Cliff live, Fraulein Schneider (Phyllis Kay), falls in love with an elderly widower, Herr Schultz (Stephen Berenson), but is quickly convinced by her neighbors that she could not bear the pressures of being married to a Jewish businessman in a time of tremendous anti-Semitism. Because Cabaret is a musical, he tries to win her back with song, puppets, and Jewish folk tales. But the specter of Nazism eventually proves too strong.

Trinity’s take on Cabaret isn’t flawless, but it is strong where it counts. Foremost is Rachel Warren’s Sally Bowles, who delivers a performance that balances British repressed neurosis with an ex-pat’s joie de vivre. The part can be outlandish, but she brings to mind a type of girl we all know who hides her troubles by pretending to always be having fun. It is entirely convincing. When Sally is sad, we can all feel it in the pit of our stomachs. When she is exuberant, we soar along with her. Warren simply outshines everyone, including Mauro Hantman’s Cliff Bradshaw, who incidentally could win a young-Joe-Biden look-alike contest. He speaks in the over enunciated manner some Americans use to speak to foreigners and unflinchingly plays the archetypal innocent abroad. It’s not as magnetic as Warren’s Sally, but it works here. True to title, the play is a cabaret as well as a narrative, with songs-and-dance numbers interspersed that mirror the themes in the characters lives. As Cliff and Sally fall in love, the numbers are light-hearted and inconsequential.

Later, when Cliff frantically leaves Berlin to escape persecution for his anti Nazi beliefs, the cabaret within Cabaret talks back with a number that quickly turns into an imitation of Nazi propaganda, dancers goose stepping across the stage.

The set, too, plays with the idea of their lives as a show. Smaller pieces serve as a train car, a fruit shop and a boardinghouse, but the most important set pieces are conceptual spins on 1920s cabaret stages. The main set piece is a gilded baroque frame around the stage, symbolically falling down towards the audience and capturing Sally and Cliff’s struggles within it. The set seems more fitting for the themes of the show with each passing scene.

Also striking is the production’s attention to detail, in which every step the characters take seems tightly choreographed and even the stagehands wore period costumes. Director Curt Columbus has directed two previous productions of Cabaret and it shows in the actors’ appropriately subtle gestures and the blocking of logistically complicated scenes. A few minor actors give unconvincing German accents but for the most part the audience wants to believe they are sitting in pre-War Berlin, partaking in some light debauchery. This is never truer than at the show’s end, when Sally triumphantly declares, “Life is a cabaret!”

And who doesn’t love a cabaret? It’s a bit garish, sure, but it’s also a story with an unhappy ending, rare among Broadway musicals. It speaks to our tendencies towards delusion or cowardice in the face of injustice, and tells the story of heroes who can’t be heroic. The Trinity Rep has created a convincing interpretation of a classic musical that is both fun and tragic in the correct proportions. 

Cabaret is playing through October 11th at the Trinity repertory Theater.

MARISA CALLEJA B'10 is fun and tragic in the correct proportions.