CABARET, the classic musical by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff based on Christopher Isherwood's semi-autobiographical GOODBYE TO BERLIN, has opened at last in Cape Town, following a run in Johannesburg and a successful season in Durban last year. A professional production of the show has not been seen in this city for far too long and, in this fantastic production by KickstArt in collaboration with Pieter Toerien, its return is a welcome one.
Set in Berlin as the decades of the last century shifted from the roaring twenties to the turbulent thirties, the show tells the story of Clifford Bradshaw, an aspiring novelist who comes to the city in search of freedom and inspiration. He meets Sally Bowles, a singer at the decadent Kit Kat Club, a raunchy cabaret club presided over by a meta-theatrical Emcee who comments on the action of the show in song as it occurs. As his experiences in Berlin grow in number, Cliff soon learns that freedom is elusive and not without cost; by the end of the show, it is inspiration that he has found, in spades.
CABARET is one of those musicals that exists in a number of different forms. For a start, there is the original 1966 version, the completely reworked film adaptation from 1972, the 1987 Broadway revival and the 1993 Donmar Warehouse revival that was the foundation for the 1998 Broadway production of the show. The 2006 London revival once again rearranged the song stack and the form that the upcoming London revival of the show (with Will Young as the Emcee and Michelle Ryan as Sally Bowles) will take remains to be seen. This production is firmly rooted in 1998 revival territory.
The cast is uniformly excellent. As the Emcee who guides the audience through the show’s narrative, Sascha Halbhuber is sardonic and sexy. He is supported by a bevy of damaged beauties, the girls and boys of the Kit Kat club, who are played by an octet of talented and attractive performers.
Samantha Peo hits the mark as Sally Bowles. She is edgy, fragile and irresistible. Her Sally flirts with hysteria, a woman who knows where she wants to be and who wants it desperately, but who commits so much energy to performing the story of her own life that she just does not have anything left to get beyond her own limitations. Her delivery of the title song, a challenge for actresses in the role because there is so much going on at that point in the show for the character in its subtext, communicates that sensibility as clearly as it communicates the conflict Sally is experiencing, which will subsequently play out in the final scenes of the show. Many actresses make the mistake of playing "Cabaret" as the culmination of Sally's journey. Peo does not.
As her foil and the show's protagonist, Byran Hiles is a personable Clifford, caught between the decadence of Berlin as it enters the 1930s and his growing awareness of the evils that are beginning to take hold of the city politically. Charon Williams-Ros and Peter Court, as the Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, give the show a great deal of its emotional weight, thanks to their on-form characterisation and co-playing. Williams-Ros is magnetic in her two philosophical numbers, "So What?" and "What Would You Do?" and Court imbues his second duet with her, "Married" with a touching sincerity. Kate Normington has a great deal of fun with Fraulein Kost, effective too in later scenes where the character's sinister nature is revealed.
Steven Stead's direction is incredibly effective. From the opening moments of the show, as the Kit Kat Club emerges from underneath dustcloths and the rubble of history to the tune of "Wilkommen", to the disturbing closing sequence, which makes use of a discordant reprise of that song, CABARET is by turns engaging, provocative and immensely moving. Stead knows when to be seductive, when to be grotesque and when to play things straight. The final scene of the first act, when earlier hints of the rise of the Nazis begin to materialise in a more concrete fashion, is mesmerising, a triumph of staging that is most certainly one of the best realised scenes that has been seen on the musical theatre stages of this country.