Maybe it was a mistake to watch the footage of Oscar-winning Minnelli in the 1972 film version of Cabaret before seeing the stage show at Montecasino.
The role of nightclub dancer Sally Bowles is a tough one for anyone to fill, but more so when the amazingly sensuous yet vulnerable Minnelli will own the role forever.
Like a jury with its mind already made up, I watched Samantha Peo take the stage, and found her toodle-pip British accent a little grating, her aura a little too wholesome. But soon the whole decadent atmosphere of the sleazy Kit Kat Club in Berlin had sucked me in, and when Peo belted out a final defiant number I was a true believer.
Cabaret has been around for decades but has lost none of its power to thrill and chill. It’s set in the wild and lascivious days just before the Nazi regime finally began to bite. The cabaret dancers and most ordinary citizens still think it will all blow over, especially Bowles, who naively refuses to acknowledge that politics could finally spoil the pleasure.
The show begins with the delightfully louche Sascha Halbhuber as Emcee welcoming us to the nightclub, or what remains of it, as he removes dust-sheets to gradually bring the club back to life for a few hours to replay its final days of glory.
Despite the feathers and the fishnets, Cabaret is not a piece of fluff. It’s a hard-hitting show where the broody undercurrent suddenly swings from moody to menacing. It catches us first at an engagement party for the old and lonely boarding house owner, Fraulein Schneider (Charon Williams-Ros), and the Jewish greengrocer, Herr Schultz (Peter Court). The pair are magnificent, giving us some wonderfully tender moments interspersed with humour.
But the party’s over when the seemingly charming Ernst (Lyle Buxton) reveals his Nazi insignia and starkly warns Schneider that marrying a Jew won’t end well. Williams-Ros performs a powerful and moving solo as she debates what to do, with her sense of survival kicking in as it always has.
Bryan Hiles as the American author Clifford almost acts as our guide through the changing times, sensing that it’s wise to bale out of the city while he still can, while everyone else dismisses the Nazi spectre as a passing shadow. Hiles is perfect as the young America, optimistic and ready for adventure, but grounded enough to know when to scarper.
The set by Greg King is practical and versatile, transforming from a dimly lit nightclub to a bedroom or a train station. It’s cluttered around the edges in a way that suggests things need clearing out, which, with the Nazis coming, is about to happen. A nice touch is the way the Kit Kat dancers always move in to watch over the action from various viewpoints, reminding us it’s a performance, yet emphasising that a darker force is watching you.
The cast are universally strong singers and the costumes by Neil Stuart-Harris are always ravishing and often kinky, highlighting the tawdry characters within.
This production was created by KickstArt in Durban and brought to Joburg by Pieter Toerien, and the team has done a wonderful job. The choreography is bold and sexy, the direction tight and the lighting excellent. The music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb are in turn witty, insightful, seductive and scary. An eight-piece band on stage is hidden behind the scenery for much of the time, but makes its presence felt and eases us into the second half with a few minutes in the limelight before the action kicks back in.
The political lessons are still as relevant today, showing how public apathy or ignorance can allow festering evil to insidiously take over. Yet Cabaret is not a gloomy show by any means, with a rich vein of black humour keeping the mood insouciant and hugely entertaining.
Cabaret runs at Montecasino Theatre until August 5. DM
Photos: All photos by Val Adamson.
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Old-fashioned crisps used to come with a packet of salt giving the purchaser the choice whether to salt their chips or not.