The American musical theatre classic Cabaret is now at the Arden Theatre. The story was first written by Christopher Isherwood, which was turned into a play by John van Druten, which later became a musical with book by Joe Masterhoff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.
Most of us remember Cabaret the film masterpiece starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey. Their performances are still the ones by which we measure today’s performances of Sally Bowles and the Emcee. We expect them to be larger than life, hypnotizing us into their worlds. This production, directed by Matthew Decker, does everything correctly, as it uses the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 1998 revival script. There are several versions of the musical, with this being the most celebrated as it was a production under the direction of Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes. However, this production, while intriguing and absorbing, does not soar.
Earlier this year, Broadway at the Kimmel had a masterfully bleak, uncompromising take on Cabaret. The Arden’s Cabaret opens with a gorgeous set by scenic designer David P. Gordon. If this is the seedy, hole-in-the-wall Kit Kat Club, then Volver at Verizon Hall is your neighborhood dive. From the very beginning, we are seduced into believing this Kit Kat Club is a swanky boite, which it is not. The Arden should use this magnificent set for its own cabaret nights. Yes, it’s that good. Charissa Hogeland’s Sally Bowles appears to be a good girl fallen on hard times, rather than a cold-hearted, clear-headed pragmatist, living only for pleasure while Daniel Fredrick’s Clifford Bradshaw comes across as a jolly American slumming around Europe to live life and suffer for his literary art while he’s still young enough to enjoy himself. Fine performances by Mary Elizabeth Scallen as Fraulein Schneider and Kenny Morris as Herr Schultz illustrate the other, seasoned love affair, doomed by Nazi politics.
The Emcee for this production is John Jarboe, renowned for his work with Bearded Ladies Cabaret, Opera Philadelphia, and Philadelphia Theater. Drawing upon his non-specific gender expertise, he delivers a singular performance. We may ask ourselves, “What makes a memorable performance?” The answers might be: one that rivets our attention; that makes us pay attention to the actor’s words and actions; and hope for more. If that is so, then John Jarboe delivers a great performance of the Emcee. While having Joel Grey’s performance hanging over him, Jarboe is authentic and believable. This alternative persona is a gender non-conformist, slyly acting as our Virgil leading us through the circles of hell in this Divine Comedy. How can we fault a performer who chose to sit on my companion’s lap, asking me if it were okay to drape his legs over my lap? Jarboe as Emcee even gifted my companion with a hand-lettered poem attributed to Goethe and sealed with his kiss with the admonition,”Be free.”
Adolf Hitler and his political party promised Germans that he would “Make Germany Great Again.” With the current rise of Nazism and intolerance in the United States of America, with growing trends towards repealing progressive legislation hard-won over the past decades, Cabaret delivers a stark and sobering lesson that we should never forget.
Cabaret will be at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA, until October 22, at the F. Otto Haas Stage. Touchtones, a world premiere, will be at Arcadia Stage from October 19 through December 3rd. Visit www.ardentheatre.org for more information.