Here's the signature moment from the Old Globe's production of "Cabaret." Photo by Jim Cox
“Cabaret” is one of those legacy musicals I can see over and over again and never tire of, like “West Side Story” or “Fiddler on the Roof.” In just the past 12 months, I had three opportunities to do so: in summer 2022 at Cygnet Theatre, this past spring at San Diego State in a School of Theatre, Television, and Film production, and now at the Old Globe, which has remounted a staging by director-choreographer Josh Rhodes that was presented at Asolo Repertory Theatre at Florida State University.
Rhodes’ “Cabaret” isn’t exactly reinvented – more like reimagined. Its depiction of the Kit Kat Klub and its inhabitants diverges from most productions of the Kander & Ebb musical. Rather than being a seedy dive, this ‘30s Berlin cabaret is slick, sparkling and equipped with handy-dandy stage devices like a mechanical quarter-moon that lowers and elevates chanteuse Sally Bowles while she sings “Mein Herr.” The Kit Kat dancers, male and female, are most often clad in the requisite “Cabaret” S&M-wear, but they look and move like a well-timed Broadway chorus line. Most deviating from of all from other “Cabarets,” neither Sally (Joanna A. Jones) nor the Emcee of the club’s proceedings (Lincoln Clauss, who’s come west from Asolo) is portrayed as a mere amateur performer frolicking in decadent environs, getting by on raw panache and destined to play to patrons no more sophisticated than those boozing away in the Kit Kat.
In this “Cabaret” they’re all but seasoned pro’s, regardless of Sally’s self-defeating narcissism and the Emcee’s garish showmanship. This British Sally could be on the London stage with royalty applauding in the audience.
All of the supporting “Cabaret” characters are here: Cliff Bradshaw (Alan Chandler), the aspiring and closeted American novelist who falls for Sally; Fraulein Schneider (Kelly Lester), stern owner of the boarding house in which most of the non-Kit Kat Klub action takes place; Herr Schultz (Bruce Sabath), the sweet German Jewish fruit seller who loves her; Fraulein Kost (Abby Church), the sassy prostitute in Schneider’s boarding house with an endless parade of johns in sailor suits; and Ernst Ludwig (Alex Gibson), the Nazi smuggler who initially befriends Cliff and turns out to literally wear his loyalty to the Fuhrer on his sleeve.
The romance between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, in this production, is given just about equal focus to that of the Cliff/Sally relationship. To some extent, it even overshadows the trials of our younger lovers.
The chief problem for me is that no one in the story, including this Sally Bowles, makes me want to care about them or their fate. Unlike other “Cabarets” I’ve seen, this one to me does not elicit a visceral emotional connection to its characters. Further, the elaborate set pieces and wonderful choreography and creative costumes are the dominant components of this staging. In a way they even diminish the shock value of the darker undercurrent of “Cabaret”: the encroachment of the evil Nazi influence on German society.
I kept waiting to be moved, to be startled, to be numbed as I have before with “Cabaret.” It didn’t really happen until the very, very end. In this production the haunting “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” never penetrates the skin. Sally’s rendition of the title song is more rattled than brokedown. Fraulein Schneider’s pained and quixotic “What Would You Do?” should be heartbroken. It feels overproduced.
Of course the Kander & Ebb songs are timeless as ever. Clauss and the ensemble have raucous fun with the opening “Willkommen,” with “Two Ladies” and with “Money.” As for “If You Could See Her” in Act 2, why the Emcee is paired with a Kit Kat Girl Rosie (Amy Smith) in pig nose and tail instead of the usual “Cabaret” gorilla, I don’t know. The change must have been intentional. Sorry. I missed the gorilla.
While Sally’s wistful “Maybe This Time” is presented as a torchy solo with Grammy aspirations, the staging of the Emcee’s cynical ballad “I Don’t Care Much” is absolutely brilliant -- the best moment in the entire production. Clauss appears to be a disembodied head aloft like a balloon beside a headless body. It makes a dramatic comment about the disassociation some in Germany made from the Nazi threat at the time, and we all know what the consequences of that were.
With its magnificent orchestra directed by Robert Meffe perched above the stage and impeccable production values, this “Cabaret” delivers worth-the-price-of-your-ticket entertainment. What it doesn’t do enough is leave your heart in your throat.
“Cabaret” runs through Oct. 8 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.