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March 10, 2009 at 2:11 pm
By Margaret Taylor '10

Last weekend, Carleton’s musical theater put on a production of Cabaret, the Tony Award-winning musical about a seedy nightclub in Berlin just before the Nazis’ rise to power.

The play is unusually international, perhaps like the city of Berlin itself at that time.  The two main characters aren’t even German. Clifford Bradshaw (Adam Hallbeck ‘11) is an American from Pennsylvania, an unsuccessful novelist who has come to Berlin looking for something to write about.  Then there is Sally Bowles (Laura Stratford ‘09), the British nightclub worker who muscles her way into his life and eventually falls in love with him.  Over the course of the play, the characters speak English, German, French, and Yiddish.

Some musicals struggle to find justifications for their characters to break into song, but not Cabaret.  A majority of the action takes place at the Kit-Kat Club where Sally works.  Plot-advancing scenes alternate with song-and-dance numbers that always slyly have something to do with the outside world for these characters.  The MC (Lizzy Egbert ‘09) alone has the power to speak directly to the audience, and he uses it to act almost like a Greek chorus that becomes more sinister over time.

It is largely through the cabaret acts that Cabaret manages to capture the essence of 1930’s Berlin.  In the words of Cliff, “It’s so tacky and terrible and everybody’s having such a great time.”  The dancing girls’ costumes are tame by modern standards, and some of the numbers, like “Two ladies,” would have been shocking at the time.  I might have been imagining it, but even the stage lights made the set look like a bad old photograph.

The characters would prefer to enjoy the cabaret show and ignore the political events that are sweeping Germany.  The tragedy of Cabaret is that anybody with a basic knowledge of history knows what’s going to happen.  Cliff’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Lia Bendix ‘11) is in love with one Herr Schulz (David Kornfeld ‘11), a fruitseller who lives down the street.  David does an adorable performance in the scene where Schulz gives Schneider the gift of a rare and precious pineapple.  When we find out that Schulz is Jewish, we can’t help but wince.

Chris Dole ‘09 does an especially good job as the play’s villain, Ernst Ludwig.  The insidious thing about Ludwig is that his struggles with the English language (Cliff tutors him for extra income) make him at first seem cute and harmless.  “We will go and make a large whoopee.”  But by the end of the first act, the trenchcoat has come off, and we all can see the swastika on his armband.  Even more disturbing, he features in a song with a chorus that goes, “Tomorrow belongs to me.”  The other characters couldn’t possibly realize how right he is.

Lizzy, as the MC, urges all of us in the audience to “Leave your troubles outside.  In here, life is beautiful.”  The characters of Cabaret try to do just that, but sooner or later, 1930’s Germany will catch up to them.  Is the inside of the Kit-Kat Club really inviolate, or are Cliff’s and Sally’s and Schneider’s and Schulz’s lives actually part of the act?  The MC, like one of those creepy clowns that gives children nightmares, would like to remind you that “Life is a cabaret, old chum.”  Be careful how you try to escape from it all.