Arts Editor Riva Weinstein attended the Thursday night performance of Cabaret at the Lenfest Center, the MFA Directing Thesis of Columbia School of the Arts student, Jonathan Seinen. The show was produced by Sean Anthony Chia and advised by Head of Directing, Professor Anne Bogart.
“So, life is disappointing? Forget it! In here, life is beautiful!”
Or so Cabaret‘s sly, grinning Emcee (Emily Brown) tells us, perched at the top of a wooden platform in her leather lederhosen, nipple tape and grey suit jacket. “The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful!”
One by one, we meet the members of the chorus – each decked out in leather and lace, stockings and suits and huge frilly collars. Each reflecting a particular, performative identity (the outrageous cowgirl, the innocent virgin), they twirl and genuflect to the rousing vaudeville beat.
Cabaret is a musical about spectacle. Set in the early 1930s in downtown Berlin, the seedy Kit Kat Klub attracts a crowd of people desperate to escape both the confines of strict gender and sexual roles, and their anxiety surrounding the rise of the Nazi party. Into this strange milieu steps hapless American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Andrew Gilliland). He becomes involved with the Kit Kat Klub’s star performer, the English Sally Bowles (Yansa Fatima).
When things get worse and Cliff begs Sally to leave Berlin with him, she is faced with a choice: Should she cling to the safety of a heterosexual role in the “house at the end of the lane,” or barricade herself in the last space of absolute freedom, surrounded by a world of increasing darkness?
The relevance of Cabaret to America today was not lost on director Jonathan Seinen, who writes in his program note: “With an almost Brechtian sense of historicization, the creators of Cabaret used the past to say: ‘It can happen here.’” In the half-century before WWII, Berlin was the cultural capital of, and pilgrimage destination for queerness in Europe. Drag balls and cabarets were the spaces where queer people used performance to re-negotiate their identities, creating, as author of Gay Berlin Robert Beachy puts it, the modern “idea of (homo)sexual personhood.”
The rise of Nazism may have tragically destroyed this rich world, but many of its cultural and literal descendants are still alive, and they are still performing.
The standout actors of Cabaret’s lead cast were Yansa Fatima as Sally, and Reya Sehgal, who played Cliff’s elderly landlord, Fraulein Schneider. Fatima didn’t miss a beat singing or acting, embodying both Sally’s intoxicating charisma and infuriating cheekiness, driving Cliff mad. Her chemistry with Gilliland was fantastic, and her emotion and vocal control during “Maybe This Time” – really, how does one belt that quietly? – left the audience, for lack of a better phrase, out of breath.
Fraulein Schneider was terrific fun to watch. Sehgal was hilarious being scandalized by Fraulein Kost’s night-time antics; and utterly devastating when, having given up on her own happiness for good, Schneider begs Cliff: “What would you do?”
Gilliland himself did a great job as a very bisexual, frankly adorable Cliff; I only wished he’d sung more. Herr Schultz (Molly Balk) easily captured the audience’s hearts, and Jacob Michael and Emily Martinez (Fraulein Kost) impressed us as a pair of charismatic and terrifying Nazis.
The thing that surprised me the most about Seinen’s Cabaret was that it was not the one thing that Cabaret productions traditionally are: over-the-top. Sure, there was enough razzle-dazzle and showmanship to convince me I hadn’t accidentally walked into a production of The Crucible; but the minimal set design, relatively tame choreography, and lack of special effects left space on the stage – space into which the audience’s anxieties could gradually creep. When we are not overwhelmed by a constant barrage of light, music and sound, we are forced to consider how precious this space really is, and how immanent the disaster that is going to destroy it.
The Emcee and chorus members embodied both the unbridled joy, and the desperate terror that filled queer spaces in 1930’s Berlin. Brown’s Emcee was not the ghoulish character made popular by Joel Gray and Alan Cummings. She was a sly and playful club matron, irreverent during “Two Ladies”, and jaded and exhausted during “I Don’t Care Much.” She invites us to her club with open arms and a knife behind her back, just in case we try anything on the dancers.
I am in the costume designer’s (Isabelle Tabet) debt for dressing the chorus in costumes that did not make them look like showgirls appealing to the male gaze, but like actual young, modern queer people dressing themselves for a party. Perhaps partially in thanks to Movement Director Cristina (Cha) Ramos, this Kit Kat Klub felt more like a tight-knit family than a workplace of necessity. The chorus was well-attuned to one another, with individual personalities, relationships and passionate feelings.
There was unbridled sexuality; there was desire and fantasy kicking up its heels into every part of the show. Yet this was an inwardly-directed fantasy, a performance that was first and foremost for one another.
A recurring theme of Cabaret is this classic romantic narrative: “The outside world doesn’t matter if we have each other.” But for the performers at the Kit Kat Klub – and for queer people today – there is no longer a distinction between these two worlds. Their love has been politicized, their private space invaded, and their privilege to be unseen, violated. A place which Seinen describes as “a space of Queer Utopia, a space of community and resistance” has been rendered unsafe.
One of the most heartbreaking moments of the show is during the Act I Finale, when Ernst and Fraulein Jost take over a party and begin to sing a version of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” with heavily Nationalist and Nazi undertones. The upset, humiliated chorus members rush offstage in twos and threes. Forced out of a space they believed to be safe, the question weighs heavily on us: where else can they go?
Working with the 1998 Sam Mendes version of Cabaret, Seinen sadly didn’t have to change much to make this musical relevant to today. The parallels between 1930’s Berlin and 2019 New York are uniquely terrifying. The space for queer theatrical performance is as crucial and as fraught as it ever has been.
Yet the vision of “Queer Utopia” brought out in this production does not suggest we consign ourselves to growing darkness. Instead, it encourages us to continue fighting for our places of freedom. The privilege to choose who sees and does not see us must be rendered a right. Like Sally Bowles, we must accept the possibility of “going like Elsie”, if we wish – as her real-life inspiration, anti-Fascist activist Jean Ross, did – to survive.
Image via Heidi Bohnenkamp