Tuesday 2 August 2016

Life is a Cabaret (in LA)

I was provided with tickets to Cabaret by Visit California.

We're sitting in the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The music strikes up and the Emcee of Cabaret bursts onstage, and the audience erupts in applause. "My god, it's an American audience," I think. "They'll cheer everything."

Except... it works. By virtue of the famous musical's staging, we the audience are also the audience of the Kit Kat Klub within the story. The lively response of an American audience fits neatly with the raucous imaginary nightclub in interwar Berlin, so much so that the Emcee can confidently indulge in a little audience participation after the show's interval.

And what an excellent show it proves to be. To be frank, I'm here mostly because I want to have a look inside the Pantages. Situated near the corner of Hollywood & Vine, it's a gem of a venue that was once a spectacular cinema. Nowadays it's a live theatre venue, and its interior is a riot of extravagant art deco styling.

I'm craning my head to admire the complex, decorative ceiling within the auditorium, while members of the cast wander around on stage as if warming up. Then suddenly we're off, and I'm reminded how this story has played a repeated role in my life. 

As a kid, interested in history, the bittersweet journey of Cabaret's English teacher/novelist was fascinating. I can't help thinking it must have influenced me in later doing a similar thing myself, teaching English to students in Central Europe (in this case, Poland rather than Germany) in the 1990s.

Anyway, back to the show. This LA production is based on the groundbreaking 1993 London production by director Sam Mendes, a version of which I've seen before in Melbourne. It's an excellent updating of the musical for the 21st century, heightening the bisexuality of the novelist character, Clifford Bradshaw, and weaving a sexual fluidity through the whole production. 

There are now featured cabaret boys as well as cabaret girls, and a sexual ambiguity to a great many characters. This was an excellent decision of Mendes', underlining the breaking down of old social norms and conservative certainties in the angst of the era. 

It's not a cheery environment to live in. The past has died, the future has yet to be born - and what a terrifying future it will be once it arrives, as we're constantly reminded by references to the rise of Nazism. In such barren soil, love cannot succeed; so the romantic relationships of both Bradshaw and Sally Bowles, and of Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, are doomed.

Seeing this staged in the USA during the current presidential campaign unavoidably sets the mind drifting to demagogues and public anger and hate speech, happening much closer to the venue than 1930s Berlin. I don't think the production team intended to have us considering the onset of authoritarianism in relation to current events, but musing on such matters adds a certain extra something to the evening.

Technically speaking, it's a fine production. The dancers are lithe, energetic and appealingly sleazy; the singers are strong-voiced; and the dramatic passages are ably performed. Randy Harrison (probably best remembered as youngest cast member of the US version of TV series Queer as Folk) is an excellent Emcee, with his endless sexual appetite and refusal to take anything seriously; while Lee Aaron Rosen makes a likeable and sympathetic Clifford Bradshaw.

Oddly, as Bradshaw's character is expanded by the exploration of his bisexuality, that of Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss) seems to shrink. She's certainly less substantial and mock-confident than the movie version played by Liza Minnelli, though this may indeed have been the intention of her original creator, author Christopher Isherwood. 

This version of Cabaret is well worth seeing, and not just for the splendour of its venue. The musical still has something to say to us, living in similarly troubled times.

Cabaret runs to 7 August 2016 at the Pantages Theatre, Hollywood; click here for booking details.

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