There were a few things running through my mind when I settled down to watch Cabaret on its third and final night of performance, in what appeared to be a full house at the Union Theatre. The Emcee (Jack Wright) jumped straight into a rendition of “Willkommen”: Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome! Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret.
The first of these was the question: what makes musical theatre so endearing to us? I had a quick chat with the director Nathan Storen, who felt that musicals allow a production to discuss difficult topics without scaring the audience away, by allowing frequent musical interludes that act as relief. He also added that musicals were a form of entertainment that university students would appreciate and easily get into.
Meanwhile the producer, Aram Geleris, shared his favourite thing about musicals: “It gives you the chance to be outrageous and silly on stage.” He also let me in on why he decided to choose Cabaret for their production – although its relative popularity would resonate with the student population, it still allowed a lot of room for interpretation.
The other thing on my mind was whether the abundance of creative talent in previous productions of Cabaret, especially the 1972 film by the same name, starring Liza Minnelli, would be an overbearing influence. Storen clarified that apart from when he got stuck on a certain scene or routine, he did not directly gain inspiration from any single performance of the past.
To focus again on the show, Trinity College gave us a night of non-stop entertainment with engaging and tightly choreographed routines. The performance efficiently incorporated more than thirty cast members and this was particularly visible in the choreography, where the number of dancers was aesthetically pleasing as well as interesting.
Speaking of visually interesting, the costumes were 10/10. In their attempt to portray uniformity in the costumes of the cabaret dancers, the few short black dresses that were markedly different from the others made it seem all the more real.
The space issues of fitting the orchestra, the cast and an effective dance routine on stage would have been a challenge if they had used more props, but what surprised me was that the performance predominantly relied on the actors to illustrate the context with an occasional pile of books, a typewriter or a reference to the location in their speech to signal where the scene was taking place. This was both clever and innovative as they used only a basic set of two tables, curtained doors and a handful of chairs.
Now to approach the actual performance of Cabaret, I felt that the Emcee’s ad-lib and reliance on audience response was risky and detracted from his easy confidence on stage. Having said that, this had no effect on his performance of the two musical routines “Money” and “Two Ladies,” which were pure entertainment!
Evelyn Parsonage played Sally Bowles, whose voice and fur coat were riveting. The performance of “Mein Herr” was beautiful and on point. The routine with the chairs and the cabaret dancers was one of the high-end energy moments of the night. (I apologise profusely to those of you who heard me sing the lines on the tram home.)
At this point I must interject to mention that the consistency of the German accent wavered at times, especially during the rendition of songs – specifically, the solos. Both the English Sally Bowles (Parsonage) and the American Cliff Bradshaw (Josh Martin) are exempt from this.
The portrayal of the blossoming love between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Shultz, played by Katie Parrott and Lachlan Philips respectively, was very well done. A special mention to the harmonies they maintained in their duets! Parrott’s love laments were also powerfully moving. The one thing that I wondered during the intermission was whether the pineapple that Herr Shultz gifts Fräulein Schneider was real, despite its incredible perfection. (This will be revealed by the end of this review.)
The jarring change in mood after intermission had me baffled for a while. The sudden transition from the promiscuity in Fräulein Kost (Gretel Hayden)’s life to her role in instigating a Nazi rant in the middle of a party was quite overwhelming. It was reminiscent of the shift that occurs in The Sound of Music. The production could have played with the tension and the topic to make it more compelling by suggesting it earlier in the show, through a subtle increase in the perpetuation of Nazi ideology.
The most powerful image in the show was the final one, in which the Emcee strips off his costume to reveal the tragedy of the boy in striped pyjamas and the Star of David. Ernst Ludwig (masterfully portrayed by Chris Richards) was the expression of the resounding power of Nazi ideology in the second act as he intimidates those who are not pro-Nazi. The scenes in this half were slightly chaotic and the musical interludes lacked the same energy. All of this, in a way, represented the falling action before the final scene, when the gunshots were heard and the curtain fell.
And a long overdue note, as the Emcee informed us at the very start, “even the orchestra is beautiful!”
And yes, for all those who have made it this far, the pineapple was real. It was also a part of all three performances! Bravo to the cast and the crew – the turnout that night would have made it a memorable final performance.
Trinity College Musical Theatre Society’s production of Cabaret played in the Union Theatre, Union House, the University of Melbourne from April 29th to May 1st.