(if you hate spoilers, you may want to just go see it now, and then read the rest of this post afterwards)
1) Multiple Embedded Narratives
As you can tell from the brief description above, A LOT is going on in this musical. What strikes me about Director Matt Hawkins' presentation of Cabaret is its storytelling power. Instead of focusing on the larger story of the Nazi ascent to power, Cabaret tells multiple stories. There is the love story (perhaps the most traditional) of Sally the british cabaret performer and Cliff the american novelist, the more heartbreaking love story of Fraulein Schneider the hostel owner and Herr Schultz the jew, the story of increasing Nazi oversight within the cabaret, the story of Ernst the Nazi operative and his strained friendship with Cliff, the story of the cabaret Emcee's defiance against the Nazis, and (one of the most interesting and effective threads in the narrative) the story of a curious relationship between the Emcee and a little boy (more on that later).
What's impressive is that even though these narratives are interspersed and don't always have direct causal relationships with each other, the play remains coherent, clear, and fast paced. Indeed, all of these narratives work together, creating an experience that is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn't feel fragmented because everything is relevant, urgent, and resonant. The intimate set design at the Storefront Theater is a key part of pulling this off. It is gritty, dark, and spare with its catwalks, dancer poles, and exposed lighting. But from the first number, the viewer feels immersed in the world and in all of that world's stories.
2) Polyphany, Or Multiple Voices
This is related to multiple embedded narratives but worthy of its own discussion. It would be easy to abstract the Nazi threat into a sort of monolithic evil. This, indeed, is the approach of many stories dealing with this subject matter. Don't get me wrong, the Nazis are the villains of this story, too, but Cabaret gets at the tragedy by focusing on characters in crisis, crises which, though affected by the Nazis, are more about the characters' own existential dilemmas (an idea that Milan Kundera often discussed). And because each character has a different existential dilemma, each character's response to the growing Nazi presence is different.
Schultz, who perhaps has the most to lose of any character, chooses to be in denial about the threat because he is mainly concerned with marrying Schneider. Schneider chooses to do as she's been advised and not marry Schultz because she is poor, old, and feels, as with everything else in her life, that she must deal realistically with the hand she's been dealt. Sally also chooses a sort of denial because she cannot escape the fantasy world of the cabaret ("life is cabaret" she sings in her last number, which is surprisingly unsettling). Cliff chooses to run because the party in Berlin is over; the fantasy of the cabaret has been shattered for him, so he leaves. And the Emcee, in many ways the most heroic character, chooses to defy the Nazis because she, ironically, refuses to let the cabaret remain in the fantasy world; she makes it a vehicle of protest against Nazi intolerance (with disastrous results).
Thus, since Cabaret focuses on a multiplicity of characters, stripped down and defined by crisis moments, the tragedy of Nazi power is felt in the everyday decisions of its characters, so it is felt more viscerally. The characters are being forced into corners they don't want to be in, and each reacts differently, their varied voices driving the tension.
And, of course, the actors' performances are superb, bringing all of these characters to life!
Even though runtime is over two hours, this fast-moving show is efficient. We know the traditional love story of Sally and Cliff already, so it is okay to get it in just a few scenes that, again, focus on crises, on decisions. We don't need much more than the get-together, trouble-in-paradise, and break-up scenes. This provides room to get messy and let the quirkier parts of the musical in--the pineapple song, a threesome that turns into an orgy, a slideshow that chronicles the love story of a human and a gorilla, a Hitler parody that features Satan as a bride. We also know the Nazi narrative. We don't need any exposition about the threat that Nazism represents. Schultz simply has to to mention he's jewish in an early scene, and we automatically feel the tension. We know we are in 1930s Germany, after all, and Schultz is probably not going to see a happy ending. But all of this exposition occurs silently--the ominous presence of the masked Nazi avatars standing in the catwalks, for example. We know what that means; the implications require no explanation.
4) The Emcee and the Boy
Haha, I was trying to fit this into my discussion in a more elegant way, but this really was my favorite piece of craft in the show and deserves its own place on my list. If you see this production, watch these two characters closely. Their relationship is the most fascinating one in the entire show. It embodies all the things I have described above: It is an embedded narrative, it is a voice that includes its own existential dilemma, and it is incredibly economic, involving absolutely no lines, just a few brief but extremely powerful actions, mere gestures even. For all the lechery the boy witnesses in the cabaret, the Emcee seems oddly concerned with preserving the boy's innocence. And the tragic course this relationship takes packs a massive punch to the gut. It hurts, it breaks your heart, it makes your hairs stand on end. So...
Cabaret is running until May 23rd! GO SEE IT!!!
And, check out the Hypocrites' website to find out more about their unique productions!