Salt Lake City – “In here, life is beautiful.” The catchphrase of the Tony Award winning musical rang true as I was invited to my table by a couple of cabaret boys and given a drink. While interacting with the cast, with snacks and tea lights laid out before me, I was impressed with Utah Repertory Theater Company’s hospitality, and immediately felt immersed in the Kit Kat Club and ready to be entertained.
Cabaret, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Joe Masteroff, takes place largely inside the sleazy Kit Kat Club in 1930’s Berlin, just as the Nazi’s are rising to power. American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (played by Johnny Hebda), has come to Berlin to find inspiration to finish his novel. When he encounters the iconic Sally Bowles (Anne Louise Brings), an acclaimed English night-club performer, the two begin an affair that causes their lives to intertwine and unfold, ultimately altered forever.
Although Cabaret is flashy and exciting, there is an immense amount of depth to be unpacked in the musical. Interspersed with enticing cabaret scenes, political themes are also explored intelligently and thoughtfully thanks to the gifted direction of L.L. West. There is a feeling of a distorted reality throughout, intertwining the dullness and harshness of real life with the beauty and desire of the life inside the Kit Kat Club. The Master of Ceremonies (Teresa Sanderson) lingers in the background, weaving in and out of scenes that take place outside of the club, as do various cabaret performers, reminding the audience of both worlds. As the musical progresses, the outside world begins to gain dominance, and we realize that life is perhaps not as beautiful as it seems. The characters become disenchanted as they assume a frightening and shocking political climate that is all too familiar to our own current one. Cabaret forces a societal commentary that not only sheds light on horrendous past events, but connects our society now in America to that of Germany in the early 1930’s. The intensity builds effectively throughout the play, erupting at the end of act one, and again at the end of the show, stirring powerful thoughts and emotions.
Teresa Sanderson as Emcee, or the Master of Ceremonies, is brilliant. She was skilled at talking directly to the audience and pulling them into the atmosphere of the club. Her excitement was palpable, creating a realistic environment that I could concede to being a part of. While I loved Sanderson’s big and comedic roles, my favorite moment was the poignant musical number “I Don’t Care Much.” I found Sanderson’s character especially important as she consistently reminds the audience of relevant political implications.
As Sally Bowles, Anne Louise Brings is sultry and compelling, playing her performance persona naturally. I enjoyed her rich and mature voice that seemed perfectly suited for the role, especially in the number “Maybe This Time,” where she also skillfully showed a strong display of sorrow, hope, and vulnerability. Her counterpart, Johnny Hebda as Cliff Bradshaw, was outshined by Brings often. I felt Hebda’s performance was stiff, and that he was never fully able to embody his character or connect with Sally in a remarkably believable way. Instead of just going through the motions, I wanted to see him loosen up and believe that his emotions and actions were justified, but unfortunately, those moments were rare. In contrast, Jayne Luke as Fraulein Schneider and Michael Nielson as Herr Schultz had wonderful chemistry and made for a picturesque couple. Luke was simply delightful in her role, playing the stern and independent land lady in a perfectly charming and funny way. In the heartbreaking number “What Would You Do,” I could both hear the honesty in her voice and see the sadness in her expression, clearly communicating her true love and struggle.
Music direction by Anne Puzey proved to be excellent, with strong solo performers that had their best moments when singing, as well as a blended and cohesive ensemble. This is also true of Ashley Gardner-Carlson’s visually pleasing and tight choreography. I enjoyed the sexy but somewhat rigid and exaggerated movements of the ensemble in the big musical numbers, emphasizing the unique entertainment of the time. I also felt the time period appropriate costumes were impressive and alluring, designed by Nancy Susan Cannon.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Cabaret. I love theatre that is socially conscious, and I believe it is some of the most important work to produce. I feel this musical is especially relevant right now, making it that much more affective, powerful, and thought-provoking. Utah Rep has done an exceptional job with such a deep, dark, and complex piece that needed to be showcased. I would encourage those who are comfortable with adult themes and sexual content to attend. After all, “Life is a Cabaret.”