“The party is over.” Those words burst out of a character’s mouth near the end of Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s new production of Cabaret, striking an ironic chord. What, you may ask, is Cabaret if not a party? Isn’t it all about cheery show tunes, bowler hats and being called “old chum”?
Yes and no. Part show-business extravaganza, part queer manifesto and part requiem for pre-WWII Germany, the 1966 musical edition of Cabaret (which adapts Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin and John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera) is a tornado of energy charged with both glee and grief. And while Fuse’s production sometimes struggles to weave a coherent path between those dueling emotional poles, it is nevertheless a rousing night of theater that ends on a powerfully tragic note.
Cabaret is fueled by one of the most enduring mythological archetypes: the young man who enters an unfamiliar and alluring world. In this case, the man is the American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Alec Cameron Lugo) and the world is Berlin during the time of the waning Weimar Republic. There, Clifford becomes fascinated with the maniacally intense English singer and dancer Sally Bowles (Gwendolyn Duffy) and her performance arena of choice: the Kit Kat Club, where straight, gay and trans performers alike are given carte blanche to express their identities in an inferno of music, movement and joy.
It’s an overwhelming world. Cabaret is being staged in the fairly cramped Funhouse Lounge, which means that the performers are close enough to the audience to pelt you with necklaces, invite you to dance and, most importantly, dare you to be shocked. Ejecting audiences from their comfort zones is a core part of Fuse’s mission ,and Cabaret doesn’t hold back (especially during a scene where the Kit Kat Club’s unnamed emcee, played by the illustrious Ernie Lijoi, teasingly covers his genitals with a hat and then exposes them anyway).
While the excess of Cabaret is part of its charm, there are moments when it risks descending into narrative chaos. It opens with a lengthy first act in which the performances at the club overwhelm the narrative (the play’s many songs, which were written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, include “Willkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Perfectly Marvelous”). That won’t be a problem for audience members who view Cabaret less as a play and more as a show, but during the first hour and a half, I grew impatient for less sensation and more story.
Which is exactly what the second act delivers. The later, more somber scenes eloquently explore how each character reacts to the possibility of a fascist uprising. Sally, for instance, turns a blind eye, unwilling to believe in the sinister possibilities beginning to loom, while Clifford reacts with almost toxic defiance. One of the most impressive aspects of Lugo’s performance is that he colors Clifford’s innocence with a cruel rage that manifests when he berates Sally for her apathy. He shows us that the character’s apparent innocence and idealism don’t mean that he’s not a mansplainer or a misogynist.
In a decade in which white nationalism and trans- and homophobia have thrived, the ultimately grim fate of the Kit Kat Club can’t help but have an eerie contemporary resonance. Yet the truth is that Cabaret is too grand in scope to be confined to one place or time. Each battle that rages in the play—from Sally’s clash with her exploitive employer Max (who is also played by Lijoi) to Clifford’s falling out with Ernst Ludwig (Michael J. Teufel), who hides his sinister nativism under a mask of seductive charm—feels familiar.
At the end of the day, we’re all patrons at the Kit Kat, looking for liberation, but knowing that it can all too easily be snatched away as the curtain falls.
Cabaret continues through June 2 at the Funhouse Lounge. Ticket and schedule information here.