It’s been nearly two decades since I first stepped foot in the Kit Kat Klub for the multiple Tony award winning Broadway production in the former Studio 54. The vibe of the show was sexy and decadent featuring Tony winner, the late Natasha Richardson as wanton night club singer Sally Bowles and the star-making turn of Tony winner Alan Cumming as the boisterous and bracing Emcee. In the roaring nineties in New York City, same sex marriage was barely on the horizon, but other ground-breaking Broadway shows such as “Rent” glamorized the Bohemian world of artists and brought LGBTQ characters into the mainstream prominently featuring the AIDS epidemic and exposing new audiences to the rampant tragedy.
At that time, it seemed we were only getting better, and the arc of the moral universe was bending toward justice. We could revel in the steamy nightclub scenes in the Kit Kat Klub and shake our heads and tut-tut at the rising anti-Semitism depicted at the close of the Weimar Republic with Nazism on the rise. At that time, Donald Trump was known primarily as a real estate magnate who loved gold and publicity, and the World Trade Center towers stood tall.
Flash forward to 2022, our country is bitterly divided, the Jewish and LGBTQ communities are being terrorized by rising prejudice and hate crimes. Once again, the Asolo Theatre’s Michael Donald Edwards has his finger on the pulse, introducing Sarasota audiences to the modern classic “Cabaret,” which lulls the unwitting viewer into complacency, with its charismatic performers, witty and playful banter, and top-notch choreography that we have grown to expect from Asolo favorite director Josh Rhodes. However, while we might wish to believe that “life is a Cabaret,” the unrest and uneasiness of our current era has made this iteration of “Cabaret” at the Asolo even more urgent.
Alan Chandler was a charismatic Clifford Bradshaw, the American writer through whom we enter the world of the Kit Kat Klub. His deep convictions came through in Chandler’s well-calibrated performance providing the moral center in a show that depicts the darkness of human nature. Perhaps owing to his outsider status as a closeted bisexual and his Midwestern upbringing, Bradshaw is alone among the core characters to make a very clear stand against Nazism. He seemed to represent the role that the United States would ultimately play in fighting to defeat the Nazis. It was painful to watch the other characters bemused by his steadfast challenges to Nazism as they continued to appease the rising evil surrounding them.
Iris Beaumier turned in a unique performance as Sally Bowles. Beaumier has powerhouse vocals and brought down the house when she sang Sally’s lament in “Maybe This Time” as she weakly hoped her future might change, as well as her tragic rendition of “Cabaret” when she resigned herself to her life as a nightclub singer. Although they are the central love story, Bowles and Bradshaw lacked chemistry, which made their romantic attempts less convincing.
The more interesting romance was the positively charming pairing of Kelly Lester, in her Asolo debut, as Fräulein Schneider and Phillip Hoffman, back on the Asolo stage after thirty years, as Herr Schultz, whose older, more mature relationship was positively adorable right up until it wasn’t. Schultz wooed the reluctant Fräulein with fruit, and she became winningly giddy when he revealed a single pineapple that he chose for her. Lester was magnificent in her portrayal of the Fräulein, who thought she was past her prime but let herself fall hopelessly in love with the kindly businessman. The dashing of hopes in the second act was heart rending and made it undeniably clear that by choosing the status quo, one becomes complicit in the horrors that are merely suggested during the condensed time-period depicted in Cabaret.
The Emcee played by Lincoln Clauss kept the action moving and was centered throughout the production introducing us to the depravity of life at the Kit Kat Klub. He slithered and skulked across the stage representing the creeping bigotry infiltrating the Berlin nightclub scene. Ultimately, he showed us the depravity that can exist in a hollow soul.
Rhodes made a dramatic artistic decision in the close of the show, which demonstrates that no matter how much we may wish to avoid taking a stand or becoming political, our very existence depends on it. If we do not speak up when we see the persecution of our neighbors, at some point, the persecutor may come for us. Unlike previous performances of “Cabaret” that took an historical look at the rise of Fascism, today the show’s message is ringing like a desperate clarion call. Bravo to the Asolo for once again using the medium of theater to take audiences on a journey that demonstrates how easily one can accept a pretty and enticing delusion at the cost of justice and humanity.