Last night I got to go see a production of the Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret at the Backdoor Playhouse at Tennessee TechnologicalUniversity. This production was directed by student Adam Combs, and was their student directed production for the season. Mendy Richards was music director and choreography was done by Jennifer Dotson-Creter. This was the second night of their run, and I was lucky enough to get to see the show on the house, as my friend was the stage manager of the production.
As a pretty well-known movie, starring Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli, most people are familiar with the title song “Cabaret” and other songs like “The Money Song” and “Willkommen.” Cabaret is certainly not your average, feel good, feel good musical. Taking place in 1930 Germany as the Nazi party began its rise to power, there is a nearly constant feeling of darkness hanging over the show.
At the beginning of the show, the rousing opening number “Willkommen” from the Emcee, played by Anthony Herd, sets the mood for the entire show. Herd attacks the role of Emcee with hilarity, giving Emcee a sort of cartoonish and dream-like feeling. This gives the audience a false sense of what this show is actually going to be, but it works well when the show takes a shocking and serious turn later.
We then see starving American author Cliff Bradshaw, played by Joshua Spivey, making his way to Germany looking for inspiration for his book. He’s already been to several other European countries and is on the move again. In Berlin, Cliff thinks he’s found what he needs. Fun, friends, and the Kit Kat Club.
Cliff takes up residence in the boarding house of Fraulein Schneider, played by Mary Pashley. We’re introduced to Sally Bowles with her Kit Kat Club number, “Don’t Tell Mamma”, which perfectly tells the story of Sally’s carefree and flighty take on life very much reflects the feeling of the Kit Kat Club. She has friends of all kinds and seems to know everyone and very quickly worms her way into Cliff’s graces and his room.
While giving English lessons to supplement his income, Cliff becomes friends with Ernst Ludwig, played by Brent Fleshman. Fleshman’s Ernst is suave and smooth. He’s friends with nearly everyone, including Sally. But even from the beginning, you can tell there’s something more underneath. It’s obvious that he’s dealing in some less than legal projects, and we don’t find out until later in the show just what those dealings are.
We also meet an amazing ensemble of characters at the boarding house, including Fraulein Schneider’s beau, fruit market owner Herr Schultz, played by Lynn England. England and Pashley give an interesting touch to the roles of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. They play and adorable couple, with Herr Schultz ready to go all into a relationship, and longtime bachelorette Fraulein Schneider with some reservations. Their duet “Married” is both funny and sweetly adorable.
When the show takes a serious turn, tackling the ideals of the Nazi party, Emcee gives a creepy rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.” After that number, the mood of the show goes from flighty and dream-like, to depressing and serious. We being to see the relationship between Sally and Cliff disintegrate. Sally reveals she is pregnant and is looking for a way out of the pregnancy and the relationship. Cliff sees the state of Germany changing and wants to take Sally back to American where they can settle down and start a family.
We also see the relationship between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz begin changing when it’s revealed that Herr Schultz is a Jew, making both he and Fraulein Schneider targets for the Nazis. Mary Pashley gives a touching performance of “What Would You Do?” when Fraulein Schneider is exploring the possibilities of continuing her relationship with Herr Schultz.
One of the last numbers in the show is “Cabaret.” Sally Bowles has ended her relationship with Cliff and you see both her heartbreak and her inability to change herself and face reality. She instead desperately clings to her flighty personality and outlook on life, in spite of all that’s happening around her and to her.
One of my favorite lines in the whole show was one of Cliff’s. He’s describing Berlin when he says, “It’s so tacky and terrible & everybody’s having a great time.” I couldn’t help but feel like it’s a great description of the show itself. While it wasn’t terrible at ALL, the show itself is slightly tacky (the book itself), and you can’t help but have a great time while you’re there. The range of emotion in the show is wide, bringing in some depressingly serious topics that transcend the time period itself.
I must say that Cabaret is a HUGE production and the Backdoor Playhouse is not a huge venue. This could have been a complete staging disaster. It could have been, but it wasn’t. There was some very creative set design, including a raised area that was almost at the ceiling that served as Cliff’s room at the boarding house. That being said, there were a lot of scene changes, and because there were so many set pieces to be moved, and so many people to do it, sometimes the scene changes were distracting. Too many people, moving too many things and taking too much time.
Overall, this show is well worth your time and money to see. Ladies, I can even bet you can convince your significant other to go. Just tell him there are a bunch of girls running around on stage in their skivvies. ;) I know the elderly gentleman that sat next to me with his wife enjoyed the show…if his whistling at the girls on stage was any indicator anyway.
Cabaret plays at the Backdoor Playhouse at Tennessee Technological University thru November 17th. Tickets are $12 general admission, $10 senior citizens and $5 for non-Tech students. Tech students get in free with their ID. You can call their box office at (931)372-6595 or visit their website for more information.