Paul Capsis and Chelsea Gibb star in Kander & Ebb's musical tale of the last days of bohemian hedonism in pre-Nazi Berlin
The whole purpose of theatre, the reason it survives every technical advance and novel distraction, is its intrinsic sense of excitement; literally anything can happen. The opening night of producer David M. Hawkins’ Cabaret couldn’t have demonstrated this better: severe technical difficulties shut the show down, and the pressure to reignite it fell to its leading lady at her most vulnerable point. The result, unplanned and unavoidable, was the kind of moment everyone present is likely to remember for years to come.
Acclaimed director Gale Edwards was brought in to direct the production after a cooly received Sydney season, and her imprint is obvious; the excessive decadence she brought to her Opera Australia production of La Bohème is evidenced in the steaminess and aggression of the ensemble, and in the speed and control of the transitions. She’s managed the shift to a far bigger theatre perfectly, opening out the performances without losing the cramped intimacy that evokes the play’s central setting, the fictional Berlin Weimar nightclub of sex and sensuality, the Kit Kat Klub.
An adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s linked short stories Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret was immortalised on film by Bob Fosse in 1972, and it remains one of the finest film musicals of all time. Some of its most iconic songs, including ‘Mein Herr’ and ‘Maybe This Time’, were written for the film and don’t appear in the stage version. In some ways, the play is closer in spirit to the original book, a series of linked vignettes that build up a picture of Weimar life as the party sours and the Nazis rise and the world goes to hell in a hand basket.
The film throws another long shadow over any stage production – or should that be two? Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, who played Sally Bowles and the Emcee respectively, were so definitive that anyone who follows is bound to feel constricted by the straightjacket of expectation. Chelsea Gibb and Paul Capsis rise admirably to the challenge, although it could be argued that Capsis in particular seems born for the role. He has that innate loucheness, the dirty underworld glamour, that the role requires. Gibb plays Sally with a sexual fragility, a hint of brittleness, that suggests deep trauma. They’re both terrific.
The production has a wealth of talent in the rest of the cast too. Kate Fitzpatrick is superb as Fraulein Schneider, wearied and weathered but tentatively reaching out for the possibility of love. Debora Krizak is also fine as Fraulein Kost, a tattered wreck desperately searching for sanctuary and finding it in the cold arms of fascism. Matthew Manahan makes a memorable debut as the sexually ambiguous sailor turned poster boy for the Hitler Youth, Rudy.
The design is also very fine. James Browne’s set and costumes, which manage to be simultaneously vibrant and grimy, suggest the seedy underbelly of Weimar Berlin without slavishly adhering to it, and Rob Sowinski’s lighting is fabulously effective, richly coloured but also shadowy and expressionistic. Kelley Abbey’s choreography is hamstrung by the tiny playing space, and she never quite avoids comparison to Fosse’s game-changing work on the film, but she brings some great energy to the Kit Kat Klub numbers in particular.
For all this excellent work, it’s a pity the show isn’t quite the sum of its parts. Pacing is wildly uneven, with little pockets of exuberance that sink too quickly into the prosaic. Some numbers work a treat, like ‘Two Ladies’ and ‘The Money Song’, but others are strangely muted and peripheral. The composers Kander and Ebb wrote an absolute wealth of material for the show, and there are many extant versions floating around, so it seems odd that this production chooses to include numbers that should be cut, like the pointless ‘Telephone Song’, while leaving out some of the best. There is a strange lack of focus and discipline, a sense of the production being cobbled together at the last minute. This is inconceivable in a show that has had a previous run, and suggests trouble in development.
Of course, the production’s largest problem, and the cause of all the trouble on opening night, is the sound. Constantly dropping in and out in the first act, it got worse in the second when thumping feedback ground the show to a halt. Gibb’s mic was sadly the worst, and ruined the title number and the play’s moment of catharsis. Edwards stood and commanded her off the stage twice, but knowing she had to continue or the show would die, she mustered great reserves of courage to deliver the song despite the technical issues. Out of the ruins of the performance, she built a rendition that will go down in this city’s theatre history, and the spontaneous standing ovation she received at its conclusion was thunderous. As a metaphor for a people trying tenaciously to hold on to a way of life as it crumbles around them, not to mention the production as a whole, it seemed perfectly apt.
Average User Rating
2.3 / 5
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The cast were great, but the show was so boring. Poor story line and unfortunately it made me fall asleep. I am so disappointed that I wasted $250 on this show. I could have seen something else with this money.
The Athenaeum proved to be the perfect venue for this stellar production of Cabaret, incarnating another time and place brilliantly. It's worth noting that the show has been through various realisations over time. In particular, the balance here is different to the film, with the emphasis (apart from the leads) on other supporting characters, less dialogue, more songs, and some variation in the nature of the main characters - fully the stage musical version. All of the cast were captivating in their (often multiple) parts, with Chelsea Gibb and Paul Capsis striking and powerful in the key roles of Sally Bowles and The MC. The characters and themes consistently carried emotional resonance (not to mention current relevance), while the physicality and visual charisma of the musical performances were amazing! I remained captivated throughout and highly recommend seeing this production. (4.5)
Don't bother spending your hard earned cash on Cabaret. Whilst the cast were definitely doing their best and the costumes were lovely, the plot failed to make the curtain. Only slightly above an amateur performance (actually I've seen better in Warragul), the entire show was a disjointed mess. The vignettes that make up a large portion of the show created odd pacing and meant a number of components simply became tiresome and irrelevant. In the end the best that can be said is that the venue is still a lovely old lady with good seating.