Updated: Jul 16, 2022
The bee spent many days trying to piece together what felt like a disjointed sequence of scenes and songs in this musical before it wrote this review. That is the predicament for any viewer who has not been exposed to Cabaret before in film or stage or writing and goes into the show with a tabula rasa, as a great deal of the musical's beauty comes from implications and insinuations, undertones and overtones, rather than what is stated or shown explicitly.
Piecing Cabaret together - the tragedy of Sally Bowles
Even after several days of reflecting on this musical, not every piece fit together like a neat jigsaw. The bee thought Sally Bowles (played by Amy Lennox) was an impressive performer, which is problematic on two fronts: one, she performed her first couple of songs (Don't Tell Mama and Mein Herr) a little too beautifully for the audience to make sense of her sacking; and two, a brilliant and confident performer like that is the antithesis of the untalented, failed heroine of the original story whose tragedy is supposed to evoke powerful melancholy in the audience. It felt rather irksome to listen to Sally's rendition of Maybe This Time - a beautiful and dramatic song about love, hope and faith that could have evoked a powerful emotional response from the audience, but failed to move the bee to sympathise with and pity Sally because, well, the bee could not see her as a victim.
Everybody loves a winner So nobody loved me 'Lady Peaceful', 'Lady Happy' That's what I long to be
Well, all the odds are, they are in my favor Something's bound to begin It's gotta happen, happen sometime Maybe this time, I'll win
(Lyrics to Maybe This Time)
Instead, Sally (up until that point at least) had come across as rather spoiled and entitled, not to mention exceptionally talented. It did not help that she made the most spectacular entrance in the musical that had the audience clapping even before she had belted our her first couple of lines.
To Amy Lennox's credit, the bee will still remember her performance for life. She sang beautifully. However, while this made the songs themselves, and Amy Lennox, thoroughly enjoyable and memorable, it contributed to the disjointedness of the musical as a whole, and the bee could just not see in Bowles the tragedy of failing at something repeatedly or feel sorry for a hapless girl who had to use every little power she had - looks, charm, childishness, sex - to get ahead in life.
The character is admirable in several other ways. Her resilience isn’t broken when she is fired. Nor is her conviction in her marvellousness shaken, as she demonstrates to Bradshaw how she could be an absolute inspiration to him and convinces him to let her stay in his room as a co-lodger. It was an entertaining scene and elicited laughter, but was that the intent? The childlike cuteness and innocence go too far, in the bee's humble opinion, to be reversed later.
The role of the emcee and the cabaret club
As for the ominous political developments in Berlin at the time, the bee could not put together the fact that the cabaret club was supposed to mirror the society of the time until much later in the show. The metaphors were a little too subtle to identify without knowing what happened ex-post and even then, it does take a bit of force-fitting for the bee to juxtapose the emcee's facial expressions, movements and lyrics into the societal narrative he supposedly attempts to deliver. Subtlety is desirable in a play, but when you have a song like "If you could see her through my eyes" where one and only one line makes any reference at all to anti-Semitism ("she wouldn’t look Jewish at all"), such a subtlety is easy to miss. Especially when that line comes after three minutes of absolutely farcical, mawkish sentimentality in which the emcee conveys his utter devotion and love for a massive female gorilla that thunders about the stage like a bull in a china shop.
How we tango with uncertainty
The bee was struck by how each character in the play deals with the uncertainty and bleakness that slowly envelop their society.
Sally Bowles is deliberately and blissfully ignorant, choosing not to concern herself with any matter that does not immediately threaten her bread, boarding or beloved. When she hears back from the Cabaret club, she is thrilled at a chance to be wanted and needed, and it does not matter to her who she is performing for, even if it is the Nazis.
Herr Schultz is hopelessly optimistic, either unable or unwilling to contemplate the the Nazis’ enormous capacity for malevolence, the antithesis of his timid, tender and kind-hearted demeanour. He can hardly be faulted for resorting to denial, an age-old coping mechanism whose usefulness only increases with the nastiness of the truth one is faced with. He is a grown man with a childlike innocence that impedes the ability to perceive evil even when it is dancing naked in front of him, and one can't help but feel sorry for him, and it is of course this evocation of strong emotion that contributes to the musical's success. (The bee still hasn't figured out if the pineapple in the musical was a metaphor for something, or was it really just a pineapple.)
Clifford Bradshaw views the developments around him with anxiety and is quick to realise that the Berlin experience for him is going to be more trouble than it is worth, that the dream afforded to him by the city - with Sally Bowles - is coming to a close. He falls back on his beloved America. Always having had this escape unlike the other characters in the show, he is much better placed to speak his mind about the rise of fascism, berate Ludwig and encourage the other characters to care and fight. He demonstrates how ideological dissent in such a society is a luxury afforded only to those who don't have skin in the game.
Fraulein Schneider supports this narrative by showing that when one does have skin in the game - when one does not have an escape route waiting for one, or a motherland that will welcome one back with open arms and rehabilitate them - one does not have as much luxury to fight for ideals like love or freedom. Practicality takes precedence over romance, and survival over richness of experience. It is the tragedy of having everything to lose and little to gain.
The bee especially loved how the cabaret club transitioned away from being a place for hedonism, sexual exploration and freedom, to establish (again, perhaps a little too subtly to catch if you're not paying close attention) the rise of the Nazis:
The sun on the meadow is summery warm. The stag in the forest runs free. But gather together to greet the storm. Tomorrow belongs to me.
The branch of the linden is leafy and green, The Rhine gives its gold to the sea. But somewhere a glory awaits unseen. Tomorrow belongs to me.
Now Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign Your children have waited to see The morning will come When the world is mine Tomorrow belongs to me
In all, the songs were lovely, the musical was thought-provoking, albeit a little difficult to piece together for a complete newbie. The bee thinks it will enjoy its next viewing (which may be years away) of Cabaret a lot more.
Three stars this time.
Watched 23 May 2022 at the Playhouse Theatre, with Fra Fee as the Emcee and Amy Lennox as Sally Bowles.