By Adam Corrigan Holowitz, April 16, 2019
Last Wednesday, on Twitter I kept seeing photos for two very different versions of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret.” At first, I needed a minute to figure out which was which.
The first version was the Grand Theatre’s current and fantastic immersive production of the musical (running till May 11). The second version was from the season finale of CBC’s hit sitcom “Schitt’s Creek” (available to watch anytime on CBC Gem).
— Schitt's Creek (@SchittsCreek) April 12, 2019
If you have been watching “Schitt’s Creek” you will know that over the season the town has been preparing to put on a production of “Cabaret.” In a brilliant creative decision the show’s creators decided to show, not a parody of amateur theatre, but a version of the musical that looks really good, with strong performances of “Willkommen” and “Maybe This Time,” that illuminate subtext of what has been happening during the season.
Over at the Grand, in London, Ont., Dennis Garnhum has directed a production that is dangerously fun and utterly shocking.
Photo: Dahlia Katz
While most productions of “Cabaret” leave the meta-theatrical framing behind as the plot progresses, this production stays fully rooted in the world of the Kit Kat Club with a brilliant nine-person ensemble all playing multiple roles. Gender is fluid in this version, and it makes such sense within both the worlds of Weimar Berlin and our present world, one wonders why this kind of casting has not been employed more often in productions of “Cabaret.”
I found watching both these versions of “Cabaret” highlighted two aspects of this musical masterpiece that I would like to share with you now.
If you look at the progression of Broadway musical theatre from Rogers and Hammerstein to Kander and Ebb, where Rogers and Hammerstein’s songs are optimistic and joyous, Kander and Ebb’s songs are cynical and tough.
In Kander and Ebb’s other musical hit “Chicago,” the lyrics are wry and satirical which act as a distancing effect so that the audience will look critically at the celebrity element in the American criminal justice system. I don’t find the characters in “Chicago” to be people I find real or can care about. That is not the point of “Chicago,” it is a satire.
However, the characters in “Cabaret” feel like old friends to me. In large part because of how Kander and Ebb’s same style of tough lyrics, this time in “Cabaret,” reveal great aches, wounds and resilience in the characters.
Just look at the song titles: “So What,” “What Would You Do?” and “I Don’t Care Much.” These are songs about the tough resolve of the human condition. In my opinion, “Cabaret” has some of the best lyrics in any musical ever. While many of the songs are sung within the context of being musical numbers at the club they, more perhaps than any other musical, reveal so much about the inner action of the characters.
This is demonstrated best when Sally Bowles sings “Maybe This Time,” this song stands alone within the structure of the show. It is usually performed directly to the audience (though in the Grand production Sally sings it looking at Cliff). The song drips with cynicism, and also with profound hope, with lyrics like:
“Everybody loves a winner
So nobody loves me
‘Lady Peaceful,’ ‘Lady Happy,’
That’s what I long to be
All the odds are in my favor
Something’s bound to begin”
Tess Benger gives a wonderful rendition of this song, in the Grand’s production. I’d be remiss not to say that. But I also want to highlight what a unique and brilliant interpretation Emily Hampshire does of this song in the Schitt’s Creek episode.
Hampshire is playing two layers of performance. She is playing her character Stevie, the sarcastic motel co-owner, who is in turn playing Sally. In a brilliant bit of television writing “Maybe This Time” highlights not only Sally’s hopes and fears but also parallels Stevie’s current situation within the arc of the series. It is a beautiful moment, and it made me want to see Hampshire play Sally in a full production of “Cabaret.”
The Grand’s production has the most off the wall fun, and sense of play of any version I have seen. This is remarkably effective because the impending sense of horror in the piece is also very real and present, the result is a startling contrast. We the audience are caught up and encouraged to let ourselves go in the party of it all, only for the shock of Act Two to reverberate even harder. This is a piece of theatre about an insular world, and the people inside it, making the realities of the Nazis’ rise to power all the more shocking and historically understandable.
The run at the Grand is almost sold out, (a handful of tickets remain for Wed. May 24, matinee). Or, as some people have suggested, step back in time and go downtown to wait by the box office and see if a ticket becomes available before show time.
Directed by: Dennis Garnhum
The Grand Theatre
On now to May 11
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