“Life is a cabaret, old chum!” It’s one of the most recognisable lines in the history of musical theatre. Even the title, Cabaret, rings a bell to those unfamiliar with musicals. Opening on Broadway in 1966, the musical became a cultural sensation, captured forever in the 1972 film adaptation starring Liza Minnelli. It was further invigorated by Sam Mendes’ Donmar production in 1993, which cemented it as a classic that could retain its charm across decades. With a story about a society on the brink of upheaval it feels eerily pertinent in our contemporary political milieu; it’s like this new production at the Hayes production has arrived just in time.
However, under the direction of Nicholas Cristo, the Hayes production is less innovative than it is tame; it prioritises colourful extravaganza over biting political commentary, and runs out of steam well before the finale.
James Browne’s production design turns the Hayes stage into a cabaret club out of necessity (the show darts from numbers at the Kit Kat Klub to greater Berlin without taking a breath) and the result is a perfectly seamless, transformative set. Vanity lights surround the performers and tables have been added around the edge of the stage, for audiences, that ape the Klub’s seating arrangements. Rob Sowinski’s lighting design helps place us in the story so we know if we are mired in the excess of the Kit Kat Klub or standing in the austere and small confines of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming-house.
The opening number, ‘Willkommen,’ proves that space is no barrier to spectacle; Paul Capsis’ Emcee struts the tiny stage with a unique air of eccentricity, the band are given an unexpected and fun cameo, and the dancers twirl and shine in their glittering costumes. It is an instant highlight and a stunning welcome, but what begins so vividly slowly discolours and fades as Cristo’s direction is unable to deliver the increasing demands of a text that demands social commentary and complicated personal and political relationships.
The pace of the musical is uneven; numbers such as Fraulein Schneider’s ‘So What?’ and a duet by Sally and Cliff in ‘Perfectly Marvelous’ don’t serve well as narrative drivers, and instead rely on emotional engagement, which this production is lacking. Substandard blocking has cast members often standing in the same place on stage whilst delivering their song, making love declarations and affectionate relationships lacklustre (there’s no connection when a love interest won’t look at the object of their affections, or simply sings at them).
Context plays an important part to Cabaret. Set against a backdrop in 1931 Berlin, the seedy Kit Kat Klub is used as a metaphor for the incomingNazi regime. While Nazism is foreshadowed with a general sense of grittiness, Cristo‘s direction does not provide the critical eye the musical requires. When a young man, Rudy (Matthew Manahan), sings ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ in a red uniform, the lights place him centre-stage – but the production does not interrogate this disturbing act from an innocent, and it almost feels like a glorification rather than a critique. The only halfhearted critique comes from the Emcee, who appears at the end of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me (Reprise)’ with a mocking laugh, and later with a paper mask of Hitler in ‘Kick Line’. These feel like merely adequate choices, especially in the context of today, where connotations of fascism are ever-present in our contemporary society.
A more substantial and chilling staging choice is revealed towards the end of the musical, where Nazi officers in uniforms stand behind closed doors, their looming presence of a symbol of the changes ahead that would ultimately destroy both the public and private lives of German citizens.
This time period and its implications means that Fraulein Schneider’s (Kate Fitzpatrick) relationship with Herr Schultz (John O’May) is often more compelling than the primary story of American novelist Cliff (Jason Kos) and Sally Bowles (Chelsea Gibb). Instead, Cliff and Sally’s relationship is underdeveloped, and the chemistry between Jason Kos and Chelsea Gibb (while individually charming) is not magnetic enough to pull their story into the spotlight – which leaves their relationship without stakes, and little reason to care.
On the other hand, Schneider’s relationship with Schultz is given direct conflict amongst a world that threatens to tear the two
apart, and their affection provides a wonderful tenderness that pushes it past the slower songs and static direction.
Perhaps the strongest number of the show is Gibbs’ ‘Cabaret’, and it is the first moment that we truly see the anguish that Sally Bowles grapples with through her passionate vocals – but it arrives too late in the show to earn its full impact.
Ultimately Cabaret will have no trouble selling tickets with its iconic name (the Sydney season is now sold out), and it is a perfectly acceptable production. But one can’t help but feel that the Hayes production could have potentially gone further, and found something new and invigorating to say something about the current global political climate.