“Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!” to Arena Stage’s rendition of “Cabaret” (director Molly Smith) – the highly praised and Tony Award-winning 1966 Broadway musical. With a magnificent blend of talented actors who tell a tale embodied with scandalous and wildly entertaining elements, this is definitely one performance that audiences cannot afford to miss.
Set in 1931 in Berlin, Germany, the ladies and gentlemen of the Kit Kat Club seem to be consumed by thoughts regarding how best to lure their callers with provocative mannerisms and risqu? attire. Subsequently, they have neither the time nor the desire to notice the growing dismay and lurking misfortune of the outside world, where Nazism and warfare are literally right around the corner. This fantasy-like element is indicated by the Master of Ceremonies (Brad Oscar), though a bit satirically, in both the opening and closing scenes when he announces, “We have no troubles here. Here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful.” While the initial scenes of “Cabaret” do seem to display elements of happiness and playfulness, the audience is soon left to question just how beautiful life truly is in Berlin.
It isn’t until Clifford Bradshaw (Glenn Seven Allen), a young and quirky American novelist searching for inspiration, lands himself in the middle of Berlin that anyone from the Kit Kat Club begins to display any insight or depth of character whatsoever. Though Cliff may be a struggling writer, he certainly does not struggle to contain his enamored emotions for the beautiful Sally Bowles (Meg Gillentine), the star performer of the cabaret. The ladies and gentlemen of the Kit Kat Club sing and dance to the ups and downs of Cliff and Sally’s love affair while the ever-approaching war echoes in the background and casts an ominous shadow all over Berlin. At the end, the audience can only inquire whether love is enough to combat a war.
From the opening scene where the characters speak directly to the orchestra and initiate handshakes with audience members, the cast of “Cabaret” does a tremendous job of turning the seemingly confined space of Arena into an intimate atmosphere for both the orchestra and the audience.
In addition to the intriguing plotline, “Cabaret” is intertwined with remarkable and intriguing elements of contrast and juxtaposition, elaborately designed costumes, dramatic and exaggerated characterization, and intricate choreography – all of which serve to enhance the show’s overall effect. While the apparel of both the ladies and gentlemen – black fishnet stockings and high heels – may prove to be a bit too provocative for young children, the costumes are appropriate in conveying the ever-changing daily lives of the cabaret members. And, even if cross-dressing doesn’t strike your fancy, the ravishing performance of musical numbers including “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr” and “The Money Song” all display such amazing talent and brilliantly contrasted poise and seductiveness that they are sure to earn applause.
Each actor seems to be appropriately cast, yet Meg Gillentine stands out as a truly phenomenal Sally Bowles. With an amazing voice (even while hanging upside-down) and a remarkable ability to maintain an elegant flair despite her bombastic expressions and sleazy apparel, Gillentine certainly captivates the audience’s attention and earns her wish in achieving the status of a “sublimely scandalous” individual.
Enveloped in an atmosphere of love and lust, passion and eroticism, inner suffering and worldly turmoil, “Cabaret” is sure to meet and even exceed audience’s expectations. Only after the show’s conclusion can the impact of the performance really sink in; the elaborately costumed cross-dressers waiting just outside the auditorium not only usher audiences into the theatre, but also into the world of the Kit Kat Club and pre-WWII Berlin. There, social constraints are loosened, emotions are explored, and everyone and anyone is Willkommen.
Cabaret will be at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St., S.W., until Oct. 29. Tickets cannot be ordered online, but may be purchased by calling the theater’s box office at 202-488-3300. All students with a valid college ID will receive a 35% discount off ticket prices for every performance except Saturday evenings. Also, a limited number of $10 tickets are available to patrons ages 5-25 who purchase tickets on the day of the performance.