If you’ve never experienced Cabaret in person – in other words, your only reference point is the 1972 movie – then you really haven’t experienced Cabaret at all. Entertaining as the film is, it departed substantially from the original theatrical book by Christopher Isherwood. The splendid songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb survived, like “Maybe This Time,” “Money” and the show’s iconic title tune. But the darkness of the story, the rise of the Nazis in pre-World War II Berlin, took a back seat in the film to the showmanship of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey.
The Welk Resort Theatre in Escondido, which is staging Cabaret through July 26, makes sure audiences are aware of the difference before the curtain goes up. A note from director Joshua Carr in the program reminds patrons that what they’re about to see is not, in the words of Hal Prince (director of the original Broadway production) the “soft-centered” version. It was apparent from uncertain applause and occasional gasps on opening night that quite a few in the crowd knew Cabaret only from the movie, which was directed by Bob Fosse.
In this production, Carr and his unflagging cast do right by Cabaret the way it was meant to be, dancing and clowning when appropriate but not prettifying the story’s ugliness. Ashlee Espinosa and Eric Hellmers are solid as Kit Kat Klub singer Sally Bowles and the American writer she falls for (and vice versa), though they lack chemistry as a pair. The relationship never feels that serious. In the scene-stealing role of the Emcee, Jeffrey Scott Parsons flirts with going over the top in both German accent and mannerisms, but his is a role where over the top is almost expected. In the secondary roles of boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider and her German Jewish suitor Herr Schultz, Susan E.V. Boland and David Allen Jones strike the production’s most tender chords. At the Welk, their future and the forces that prove obstacles to it elicit more compassion than the young couple’s plight.
When fate, stamped with a swastika, takes a hand in the play’s powerful second act, everyone in the cast rises to the occasion, especially Espinosa with her ironic rendering of “Life is a cabaret, old chum.” It sure as hell wasn’t a cabaret back then. Far from it.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.