My grandmother's favorite film was THE SOUND OF MUSIC. She went over and over again, and what grandmother wanted to do we all did, so by the time I was 13 I had seen the film at least a dozen times.
Then in 1968, when my mother and I were in London, we took in the West End production of CABARET, starring Judi Dench as Sally Bowles and Lotte Lenya as Fraulein Schneider.
I was never the same after that, and sitting in the theatre tonight watching Tennessee Rep's compelling production of CABARET, I had an epiphany: CABARET is the flip side of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Instead of Maria Von Trapp we have Sally Bowles; instead of the Captain, we have the MC - and instead of the Von Trapp Family Singers we get the Kit Kat girls.
In 1972, Liza Minelli and Joel Grey did a whole new number on Isherwood's story, essentially glamorizing the decadent world of Weimar Berlin. Minelli's rendition of the title song brought it to the level of an anthem, essentially glorifying down and dirty decadence. In spite of the encroaching shadows of the Holocaust, Minelli's rendition still made you want to go out for a good time being "bad." It made many of us just want to BE Liza. Or Sally. Or both.
That is not the feeling you are going to get from Jenny Littleton's gut wrenching take on the song. Littleton's "Cabaret" is delivered by a frightened young lady who has just had a brutal abortion and probably a line or two of something narcotic.
Littleton sings the song like she can't wait to get it over with and kudos to both the actress and director Rene Copeland for not selling out to a drag show fantasy and allowing this iconic song to escape from any preconceptions, to serve not the spectacle but the story. There is no way you are going to leave this production wanting to identify this Sally Bowles. Littleton, David Compton and the rest of the cast have gotten the rave reviews they so richly deserve from our critics; there is nothing I can say about the talent that has not already been said by Martin Brady, Evans Donnell et al.
So as I sat there in the audience, my musings took me in another direction : I walked out asking myself, "Why does this play feel so relevant today."
Maybe it's because we seem to be just moments away from a national economic crisis in a country whose national psyche is the product of a racist society. Maybe it's because some of our political leaders are pretty scary. Maybe not Hitler scary, maybe not right now - maybe NOT this time - but how secure can we ever allow ourselves to be?
For all of it's engaging story and clever lyrics, the hormones of CABARET are the dance numbers performed by the Kit Kat Girls. Androgyny and denial and lust and ennui haunt Pam Atha's beautifully crafted choreography, but it wouldn't reverberate as it does if it were not for the five talented young ladies who are the Kit Kat girls - Mia Rose Ernst, Rosemary Fossee, Kristi Mason, Marin Miller and Elizabeth Claire Bailey. Choreographer and dancers are deliciously enabled by the first rate design elements of costume, makeup and lighting. These cabaret girls look more available than alluring.
A testament to the play's enduring fascination is the fact that the run has been extended (www.tennesseerep.org), so if you haven't seen it, then by all means
Come to Nashville and Go to the Theatre!
The Nashville Dramaturgy Project