“CABARET”: Theatre Intime, CJL Play, and Princeton University Players have staged “Cabaret.” Directed by Andrew Duke ’25, the musical was presented May 25-28 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above: performers at the Kit Kat Klub, headlined by Sally Bowles (Juliette Carbonnier, third from left in the front row) exemplify the hedonistic decadence of pre-Nazi Berlin. (Photo by Jazmin Morales)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Set in Berlin at the time of the Nazis’ rise to power, Cabaret largely takes place at the decadent Kit Kat Klub. The musical follows an American author’s odyssey in Berlin as he watches political events unfold, as well as his complicated relationship with the British headlining performer of the nightclub.
Cabaret (1966) has a book by Joe Masteroff. It is adapted from John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera (1951), which in turn is based on Goodbye to Berlin (1939), a semi-autobiographical novel for which author Christopher Isherwood drew on his experiences in the Weimar Republic, as well as his relationship with cabaret singer Jean Ross.
The music is by John Kander, whose score evokes both Kurt Weill-style cabaret songs (Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, performed in the original production), as well as Broadway idioms. The lyrics are by Fred Ebb.
Princeton University’s student-run Theatre Intime (in association with CJL Play and the Princeton University Players) has concluded its season with Cabaret (May 25-28). Directed by Andrew Duke, the production probes the insidiousness with which fascism inserts itself into unexpected facets of life — especially entertainment.
“Cabaret shows us the ways in which we allow ourselves to become complacent in the face of danger and evil,” Duke observes in a program note. Soberly reflecting on other “ways in which fascism seeps into our society,” Duke emphasizes that he has attempted to “center Jewish and queer identities in this show.” Noting that “members of both are present in Cabaret” he adds, “During a period of greatly increased antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia both in the United States and abroad, I didn’t want to sweep these identities under the rug.”
Multiple production elements point to the Nazis’ rise. Lighting Designer Rhim Andemichael often colors the back of the stage with the shade of red used by the Nazi flag. Set Designer Lauren Owens develops this idea by furnishing the stage with dividers that are red and white. (The dividers are striped; it is tempting to theorize that Owens is warning us that the United States is not immune to a similar fate).
After a sustained drum roll, the flamboyant Emcee (portrayed by Vincent Gerardi who gives a memorably smooth, energetic performance) enters from the side of the theater, and leads the orchestra and the cabaret’s performers in “Wilkommen” to welcome the audience. Developing concepts offered by other members of the creative team, Choreographer Eliyana Abraham lets the showy dances, particularly a kick line that opens the second act, give way to a single-file, militant march.
The Kit Kat Klub’s performers include Rosie (Emily Della Pietra), Hans (Tobias Nguyen), Bobby (Collin Guedel), Fritzie (Jenia Marquez), Victor (Laurie Drayton), Helga (Jenni Lawson), and Texas (Naomi Frim-Abrams).
Near the conclusion of the song, the Emcee introduces Sally Bowles (Juliette Carbonnier, who infuses the character with an artfully ingratiating demeanor and vocal style), the cabaret’s lead performer. Whether or not we approve of the risqué costumes and dancing, the club feels reassuringly populated. Later, we will have reason to miss the bustle.
On a train to Berlin, the young American author Clifford Bradshaw (Lana Gaige) meets a mysterious, debonair German smuggler Ernst Ludwig (Fight Choreographer Solomon Bergquist, who infuses the character with oily charm). Echoing the affable mood of “Wilkommen,” Ernst eagerly cultivates a fast friendship with Cliff, offering him work (of a slippery nature), as well as a recommendation for a boarding house, which is owned by Fräulein Schneider (Giao Vu Dinh).
Cliff visits the club and hears Sally perform the plaintive “Don’t Tell Mama.” This is a flirtatious, wry ode to secret-keeping, in which Carbonnier exudes a pouty charm. This number later is complemented by the blithe “Perfectly Marvelous” in which Sally — having quickly inserted herself into Cliff’s life (and room) after temporarily being fired by the club’s owner, Max (Kevin Yeung) — tells him how to describe to others their idiosyncratic relationship.
In sharp contrast to the raunchiness of the club and the somewhat transactional nature of Cliff and Sally’s relationship, a crucial subplot comes in the form of a tender liaison between Schneider and Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit shop owner. In one of multiple examples of gender-blind casting, Schultz is played by Grace Rosenberg, whose line readings sound a bit young for the elderly merchant, but whose voice — and delicate musical phrasing — is a pleasing mix with Vu Dinh’s for the duo’s songs “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married.”
A threat to this romance comes in the form of one of Schneider’s boarders, the prostitute Fräulein Kost (Ava Kronman), who — in retaliation for the landlady forbidding her to bring sailors into her room — informs Ernst, who eventually sports a Nazi armband, that Herr Schultz is a Jew. Ernst describes the couple’s engagement as “unwise.” Bergquist does an exemplary job of finessing Ernst’s transition from eager charm to quiet menace.
Later, the implications of Ernst’s thinly veiled threat become all too real when we hear a brick break the glass window of Herr Schultz’s shop (this is rendered by Sound Designer Nicabec Casido). Vu Dinh is particularly strong in the impassioned “What Would You Do?” in which a pained Schneider justifies calling off the marriage.
Ernst’s activities — first hiring Cliff to smuggle a suitcase full of contraband from Paris to Berlin, then discouraging Schneider from marrying Schultz —
provide a cue for two eerie anthems for the ensemble: “Money, Money,” which Duke and Abraham infuse with frenzied menace; and the Fascist-tinged “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (in which Ebb subtly but inescapably mentions the word “storm”). Kander lets the two songs share an ironically lilting triple meter.
The excellent musical direction is by Elliot Lee (assisted by Chloe Webster). The 10-piece orchestra, which is crisply conducted by Orion Lopez-Ramirez, shines in its entr’acte.
As the political situation deteriorates, so does the relationship between Cliff and Sally, who becomes pregnant (she says that she does not know the identity of the father, and that she has decided to obtain an abortion). Sally is determined not to let political events disrupt the life she has built for herself. Cliff, who has been injured in an altercation with Ernst’s bodyguards, wants to get away from Berlin. Gaige is adept at portraying Cliff’s progression from wide-eyed astonishment to horrified disillusionment.
The Emcee again introduces Sally, who sings the upbeat (if slightly macabre) title song. The number is diegetic, but it articulates Sally’s viewpoint. Duke deftly lets Sally be the only character on stage, lending irony to the line, “What good is sitting alone in your room?” Carbonnier infuses her rendition with a mixture of defiance and desperation, underlining Sally’s determination to ignore the fact that her world is crumbling around her. Her delivery of the invitation to “come to the cabaret” hints at an impassioned plea.
Paired with Sally’s determination to be impervious to social upheaval, the song — particularly the line about “sitting alone in your room” seems to take on heightened resonance now. Online entertainment, particularly social media, often keeps us alone in our rooms; and is used either to distract us from unpleasant news, or to spread propaganda that palpably affects current political events.
In a poignant reprise of “Wilkommen,” the Emcee sings alone; we wonder whether he really is there, or if he now is a figment of Cliff’s memory (on the train out of Berlin, the author reads a brief passage from his book). Costume Designer Tanaka Dunbar Ngwara (whose outfits successfully evoke period dress (particularly for Ernst, who pointedly often wears red), outfits the Emcee in a trench coat, which is removed to reveal a concentration camp uniform with multiple coded badges.
As Princeton University alumni attend Reunions Weekend to celebrate the past, Cabaret warns us to remember the world’s past, which all too easily could be repeated if we are not vigilant in preventing it.
For information about Theatre Intime’s upcoming productions call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org.