December 01, 1991

Lieder of the Pack



State Theatre Company

in association with the Australian Dance Theatre


Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

The full credits for Cabaret are quite a mouthful – Book by Joe Masteroff, based on a play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Originally Produced and Directed on the New York Stage by Harold Prince. State’s Christmas knees-up production, in conjuction with ADT, has a cast of eight, a chorus of sixteen, ten musicians, design by Shaun Gurton, choreography by Leigh Warren, costumes by Bronwyn Jones and direction by Simon Phillips. That’s a lot of hands to the one pump – at least it is, on this particular mainstage.

Cabaret is a durable, intelligent work of music theatre which became widely known when adapted to an equally durable and intelligent film. In the twenty five years since it appeared, its ingredients have become even more apposite – a central, unconventional woman defining herself against male assumptions, a climate of political chicanery and self-interest and the fashionable black und drang of Weimar cafe style. Its depiction of a gradual, imperceptible  acceptance of Nazism remains one of the more memorable exercises in dramatic and historical irony and its narrative device, a reptilian MC who makes trouble look like fun, provides an uncomfortable counterpoint to the ethical flow of the story.

Cabaret depicts a seedy world and, often, a drab one. The society is bored, jaded, deflated by inflation  – ripe for persuasion by someone with a few re-vamped marching songs, a Bryan Ferry uniform and a good logo. The show’s wit lies in the fact that the racial flattery and the fascination of cruelty and glitz offered by the MC reflect the society in microcosm. It’s a simple enough idea but it works like a nasty charm.

In State’s production, however, Simon Phillips and his designers have opted for the high road when the low one should have beckoned. The Kit Kat Club, centre of operations for the players, looks as though it’s in Nevada. Shaun Gurton’s set, clever though it is with its central swastika and interlocking scenic trucks, makes the logistics of the show difficult. Framed with lightbulbs and lined with glass tiles, the acting space is too luscious and grand to suggest hungry Weimar cabaret. There is nothing quite weird enough or deviant.

Similarly the costumes – glossy, black and wiggly- and choreography – brisk, bumpy and grindy- manage to signal eroticism without being sexy, or more importantly, without ambiguity or menace. Technically the work is of a high standard but the large group scenes, in a misplaced attempt at spectacle perhaps encumbered by the difficulties of the stage surface, add little to the energy and clarity of the production.

It is the small scenes which give the work its impact and it is here that the strong casting brings the show to life. As Cliff Bradshaw, the itinerant American, Paul English gives a well-judged performance, light on accent and in good voice. The swastika-crossed lovers Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schulz, Toni Lamond and Edwin Hodgeman are consistently appealing and while their  sub-plot is arm-twistingly sentimental, in its historical context, it is also grimly inevitable. Lamond sings splendidly and Hodgeman’s Jewish merchant is touchingly guileless.  Carmel McGlone gives a strong performance as Fraulein Kost, the patriotic hooker and Stephen Clements’ affable opportunistic Ernst Ludwig epitomises the Good German.

Helen Buday is a knockout as Sally Bowles. I have some reservations about the my-heart-belongs-to-Daddy lisp but she creates believable havoc as she moves blithely through changing times and when she belts out Bye Bye Mein Herr or hits the registers in Money Money, she stops the show. It is what you’d call a  star performance. As the MC, a crucial role in the play, Dennis Olsen is sneeringly Transylvanian. He gives a careful performance driven by  cool fury rather than Puckish mischief. He sings with a mocking diction  and when he blows cigar smoke over the doomed Herr Schulz his MC  is as creepy as the regime he represents.

This production has a heap of talented players- including crisp stylish music from the direction of Ian McDonald and the on-stage band- the solos are strong and the narrative is often dramatically compelling. But these are not sustained and there is a sense of lost opportunity. Cabaret was an unlikely Broadway success because it hit harder and deeper than the genre is expected to. Simon Phillips might have risked more discomfort for his audiences and let the show tell more of its edgy and unsettling story. It may be Christmas but that’s no reason  for Cabaret to become a fabulous folly.

The Adelaide Review, No.95/6, December, 1991, p.39.

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