David M Hawkins’s production of Cabaret may be as pretty as Sally Bowles’s green nail polish, but the only person who loved the green was Sally* and we know her manicure was cheap and chipped.
After a mixed reaction to the Sydney season (now referred to as the preview season), Hawkins brought in director Gale Edwards to sort out the Melbourne season. With Paul Capsis as the Emcee, Kate Fitzpatrick as Fraulein Schneider and Chelsea Gibb as Sally, hopes were high.
Based on a short story Christopher Isherwood wrote in Berlin in the 1930s, Cabaret is seen through the eyes of American Clifford Bradshaw who arrives in Berlin and meets English cabaret singer Sally. The stage version surprises those who expect the 1972 film adaption by Bob Fosse, but the different characters and songs are always a welcome surprise.
Set in and around the seedy Kit Kat Klub as the truth of the Nazi’s power is being realised, any new Cabaret defines itself with its design. And while the stage design with wooden floor with footlights suggests a trip to Weimar Berlin – and is gorgeously accentuated by the plush velvet and fading decadence of the nineteenth-century Athenaeum theatre – the costume design doesn’t declare a time or place. Spotlessly clean and very sequinny (and oddly, not sexy), they don’t seem to have been developed from or for character and stress that the approaching hell, that we know this world is about to descend into, is a facade that’s as authentic as a Cabaret-themed dinner party.
The likes of a giant Hitler mask, some slick swastikas and goose-stepping chorey (which might be trying to be a nod to Fosse) remove the strength of the work’s moral ambiguity and the direction doesn’t let the dramatic tension of the loss of hope lead the story.
The direction seems focussed on scenes rather than the bigger picture and story. Choices like bringing Cliff into Kit Kat Klub numbers take away his strength as the observer who can see that it’s about to collapse and that he has to leave. Making Jewish shop keeper Herr Shultz the Jewish gorilla in “If you could see her” takes away any hope for his fate. And giving Sally an “I will listen” line in Frauline Schneider’s “What would you do” diminishes the older woman’s desperate plea to find any way to let herself marry and be happy – let alone that Sally’s story is that she doesn’t listen.
Capsis is, of course, the ideal choice as the Emcee, but his role on the stage is confusing. Neither benevolent or indulgent, he’s left side stage as observer more than a participant. Gibb lets Sally’s fear and vulnerability show but, like Capsis, is restricted by the production that doesn’t seem to want to be more than pretty. I’d love to see them both – and the rest of the cast – in a different production.
And enough has already been said about the technical difficulties on opening night.
* and me; I still wear emerald green nail polish thanks to Liza.