“Watching Shotgun’s Cabaret is like spying through the keyhole into the delirious and extravagant world of the Weimar Republic.”
And, rather deliriously, the Shotgun Players have gone to pains to give the spectators of their version of this popular musical the sense of a voyeuristic thrill, whether it’s Weimar Berlin that’s being gawked at and laughed at, or just the ingenuity of the Players going about foisting their titilations and double-entendres on each other, across the floor of the Kit Kat Klub (née Ashby Stage) and up into the audience itself.
Part of the trick to making Cabaret work is to realize the spectacular—and lewd—sense of the floor show of the Klub in counterpoint with the domestic intimacy of Sally and Cliff’s wee menage in Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house. Shotgun makes it a tour de force by running the scenes together briskly, the narrative of a novelist-manqué’s adventures with a down-and-out showgirl in the wilds of Berlin, so that their homelife appears on display on the moving ramp of the Klub, with all its denizens watching, even participating.
All the walls, not just the fourth, seem to fall. That’s appropriate to a post-Berlin Wall production of a musical show that fused an impression of entre-les-deux-guerres with the catastrophes and wild reveling of the ‘60s—implicitly criticizing reveling amid catastrophe, though the movie was later embraced by the revelers as part of the so-called “Woodstock Generation” went glitter and faux-cynique.
Many productions of Cabaret aim at something like this, but Shotgun’s version is distinguished by being carnivalesque, a constant sideshow even, with accordion-playing chorus girls singing “Mack the Knife” accosting patrons as soon as their tickets are torn, and peep shows just inside the door.
To bring it off, the “show people” in the Klub are crucial, as important as the principals in the story. Clive Worsley, no stranger to Shotgun audiences, presides as the emcee, strutting, posing straddling the appropriately keyhole-shaped proscenium of Heather Basarab’s excellent set—or skulking around as number one voyeur himself, bald head and wide eyes surfacing like a frog’s from behind a chair at Cliff and Sally’s, then sprawled front row at the Klub all alone, tossing back a drink, stamped with Weltschmertz. The chorus line (Davina Cohen, Nicole Julien, Maggie Keeley, Jessica Kitchens, Rami Margron, Rebecca Noon) is tart and constantly in motion, all shapes and styles of a lowdown, high-stepping ensemble.
They’re at their best, flat on their backs, with strangely spiked heels waving in the air, as Sally (Kimberly Dooley) stalks through hunters’ nets and down the ramp over their supine, wriggling forms in the best production number of Andrea Weber’s choreography, saying goodbye to “Mein Herr.” A quick and breezy Sally, she first comes to Cliff’s attention as a smiling blonde madcap playing a naughty little schoolgirl—though her entrance had her swinging high above the crowd in fishnet, turban and lace (Valera Coble’s costumery).
Her opposite number, Cliff, is just that, and Cassidy Brown, another Shotgun standby, gets across the nice, normal Yank (whatever he might have done with Bobby the club boy in London’s Savoy) falling for the Limey femme fatale who moves in on him. Who knows? Maybe a book will come of it?
Cliff’s landlady (Mary Gibboney) and her fruit vendor tenant and beau, Herr Schultz (Joe Roebuck), strike the right note, too, in a sentimental number, a pineapple hovering in mid-air between the unlikely inamorati. Danny Weber, as Ernst, the Nazi party boy who leads Cliff to Fraulein Schneider’s—and helps break the Fraulein’s bond with the Jewish fruitseller—is so much the college type that the exposure of his swastika armband at the engagement party seems ruder. Meanwhile Fraulein Kost (Judy Phillips), the patriotic hooker of countless sailors, croons “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” to Ernst, and the ensemble, galvanized, exhorts the audience to join in a community sing-along of Ernst’s Party’s song.
And the party goes on, as the cast dances with audience members at intermission (Shotgun’s New Year’s Eve show promises to be a bash), up through Cliff’s bittersweet departure with the material for his book, while Sally bursts into “Life Is a Cabaret,” her song of triumph and denial .
Catching overtones of Marlene Dietrich, of Brecht and Weill, of the wild festivities of yore—and aiming to make Cabaret more louche, more licentious than the original Broadway production or the movie (which director Russell Blackwood, of San Francisco’s Hypnodrome, recalls seeing in a drive-in outside Kansas City as a kid)—even this smart Shotgun version, aimed at today’s tastes, surprises a little by how—clean—it is.
Based loosely on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories, Cabaret’s only real subversiveness is as a failed cautionary tale. All the energy comes from the act of catching itself looking through the keyhole at what’s disreputable. Its morality is completely reputable. The fun’s in the play-acting, pretending to be in Weimar Berlin, or merely pretending to have a good time.
But, for the voyeur of an evening, it’s a real good time, just some clean, good old dirty fun.