Stage Animal / 'Cabaret' Taken Seriously

Director Omri Nitzan achieves an effect of entertainment that lulls alertness to sleep and is enjoyable in its glamorous daring, only to land the blow afterward, on the exposed weak spot.

In the nature of things, the audience that has purchased tickets for "Cabaret" at the Cameri Theater doesn't remember and probably doesn't know that the connection between Bob Fosse's 1972 film, "Cabaret," with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, and the musical first produced on Broadway in 1966, with music by John Kander and lyrics by John Ebb, is extremely loose at best.

Gerard Allon

True, the plot of both is set in Berlin in 1931, and some takes place in the Kit-Kat nightclub, a den of decadent pornographic entertainment in the "live and let live" spirit of the time. True, the starting point is Christopher Isherwood's stories in "Goodbye to Berlin," based on his experiences in that city, and the main characters are the frivolous cabaret singer, Sally Bowles, who is a foreigner in Berlin, and the author, who is also foreign - and gay to boot. True, both the musical and the film are based on John Van Druten's 1951 Broadway play, "I am a Camera," adapted from Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin," which was very successful, even though critic Walter Kerr previewed to pan it in his review for the sake of the brilliant headline, "Me no Leica." (Back then everyone knew that Leica is a brand of cameras. ) But from here on, the resemblance ends and the differences begin. Isherwood's stories and Van Druten's play tell the tale of two young foreigners in Berlin who become intoxicated with the city's atmosphere of total freedom - not to say licentiousness. However, since they are so involved with themselves, they do not notice (and of this, the audience of the play, the musical and the film should be aware, since it knows how this ends ) that at the same time, Nazism is taking over the lives of Berlin's inhabitants.

Combination of period drama and entertainment sequences

The musical remained faithful to the play and the sprit of the stories, and its subplot told the story of the love between the German landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and her Jewish tenant, Herr Schultz, and its wreckage on the shoal of Nazism, as embodied in the character of Sally and Cliff's debauched friend, who is revealed to be a Nazi.

The film surrounded the story of the writer and the singer (in the story and the play, he is American and she is English; in the film, it is the other way around ) with a bisexual German baron who seduces both Sally and Cliff (called Brian in the film ) and a pair of Jewish friends, one of them a rich heiress and another one who pretends to be a gentile. Moreover, the film recounted a story set in Berlin in 1931, and all its musical sequences take place on the cabaret stage, making it a combination of a period drama and entertainment sequences presented as entertainment.

Nitzan has made very wise use of the musical's materials and has re-edited it by moving around scenes and songs and changing the place of the intermission between the two acts. All this has been done in order to serve up to the audience of Israel 2011, in the guise of a musical everyone thinks they know, a play about the silent majority of what is called "innocent bystanders," like me and you, who are unaware of the evil in their midst and ignore it until it becomes too late.

To achieve this effect of entertainment that lulls alertness to sleep and is enjoyable in its glamorous daring, only in order to land the blow afterwards on the exposed weak spot, Nitzan has surrounded himself with the best theater artists. Stage designer Roni Toren has designed a set that on the one hand is the bare stage of the Kit-Kat club, with an orchestra of women (a clear marker of entertainment in those days, or as the announcer says, "even our orchestra is beautiful" ) on a raised platform, which also moves out toward the audience; and on the other hand, it succeeds in bringing the audience to the Berlin of those days, with video screenings of newspaper clippings and street pictures of the times, with the streetcars and the automobiles.

But this is the background that makes possible this show's spot-on rhetoric: In the first part, we enjoy the entertainment that is dished up, with the familiar songs, the greeting song, "Wilkommen" (in which Itay Tiran orders with a lordly wave of a hand a "dear foreigner" in the audience to "stay," as if hinting at what is to come ), and the developing romance between Cliff and Sally. And even here the seeds of the change are sown in this version of "Cabaret" in the shaping of the character of Sally, as played by Ola Schur-Selektar.

After having seen her abilities as a first-rate cabaret entertainer in "Don't Tell Mama" and "Mein Herr" (which was written for the film and included in every subsequent stage version ), we are exposed to the possibility that she is pregnant and it isn't clear who the father is. Cliff (who may be the father ) is prepared to adopt the child. And here, Nitzan has inserted the song, "Maybe This Time."

In Nitzan's "Cabaret," Shor-Selektar sings this as a song of hope in a domestic atmosphere about the pregnancy that will perhaps culminate in a birth, in contrast to Sally's past abortions. This is a slow song that builds up gradually toward a climax at its end; and here this is expressed in Shor-Selektar's special voice. Even when it seems she has already reached the climax, she soars even higher on the final note, which she holds long after the air in the audience's lungs has run out.

The first act is under the sign of the developing romances: Parallel to Cliff and Sally, the elderly lovers are linked in the pineapple song ("It Couldn't Please Me More." ) To perform it, they take off in a hot-air balloon shaped like a pineapple, as homage to the tropical fruits in Carmen Miranda's hat.

"Money Makes the World Go Around," which was applicable in Germany in the 1930s and in the United States in the 1970s, as it is in Israel and the world today, sends the audience out to intermission in a cheerful mood. In the Broadway original the first act ended with the song, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," which starts as a golden-haired boy's hymn to the spring and turns into a Nazi anthem.

Not so with Nitzan. Here, we get another idyllic moment of "togetherness," as Herr Schutlz and Fraulein Schneider become betrothed - only to find that at the engagement party, Sally and Cliff's amiable German friend (Uri Ravitz, who creates a juicy and amusing character before he reveals his true self ) is concealing a Nazi armband on his sleeve under his coat. This sudden turn, the fact of which we know from history, catches us, the audience, unprepared. And from here on, things develop rapidly in the familiar direction. Fraulein Kost (Irit Kaplan, who brings a lot of unrestrained joy to the stage ) leads the engagement party guests in singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," which quickly gathers its threatening force and culminates in the wave of a hand. In a single scene, the world of the cabaret has changed.

Almost the main heroine

If in the first part, the main themes are romance and entertainment, and at its center are Sally and Cliff and life as though there were no tomorrow, the main characters of the second part are Herr Schultz (the excellent, light, veteran actor Gadi Yagil ) and Fraulein Schneider, as played by Miki Kamm. In the film, she is a marginal character. Here, she is almost the main heroine. For this is not a musical about Berlin, or about Jews, or about Nazis, or even about a cabaret. This is a musical about people like her, when this is happening around them: She has to rent out rooms; she is a German and therefore even if she loves her Jewish man, she will not marry him because it is necessary to live. As for him, he too understands the situation but he will not leave Berlin because he believes this too will pass.

And here Nitzan also does a fine job of using the extras (10 of them ) and dancers (also 10 ) with whom he fills the stage, in a plot of what is basically a chamber musical. Schneider (Kamm, who more than 20 years ago played Sally at Habima and now floods the stage with her humanity, warmth, wisdom about life and charm ) moves among the people of Berlin who are on the stage and sings to them - and, of course, to the audience in the theater - "What Would You Do?", a song that was in the musical but not the movie, and is indeed the hook for putting on the musical in Israel today.

For this production asks the spectators in the audience what they would do not if they were Jews, or Nazi supporters in the Germany of those days. It compels them to ask themselves what they would do, as a silent majority, if around them events of increasing violence, tyranny, arbitrariness, bullying and nationalism were taking place.

This is where it is necessary to say a good word about the acting in this musical, beginning with Aki Avni's performance in the thankless role of Cliff, the gay man whose role is completely straight, without a song or a dance. The surprise is mainly in light of the expectations, because my expectations from Tiran, Shor-Selektar (and I must admit also from Nitzan, Toren and the lighting designer, Avi Yona Bueno ) were very high. Avni creates a convincing presence right up to the moment he addresses to Sally, and to the audience, the most important key sentence in this musical: "If you aren't against them, you are with them."

I will not be the first to say that the expectations from Itay Tiran are high - this is the bar he sets for himself and for us, the audience. He has already played tragedy, comedy, a realistic character and a highly stylized one. Here, he is the MC, exposed, bald and made-up, multi-sexual, seductive and repulsive, amusing and threatening. In this version, he is not only on the cabaret stage, he is also the ultimate stagehand. He is the only one in this show who dares to challenge the Nazis.

And he also pays the price (warning - spoiler ahead ): At the end of the play, he sheds his leather jacket, the hangman's jacket, and is revealed in a striped concentration camp shirt. Now, the pallor of death and his baldness and his thinness are not a theatrical make-up. He opens the show and closes it, welcoming the audience on its arrival and sending it on its way - a true master; again.

The theme song, before the end of the musical, is also the most fascinating change in the emphases in this version by Shor-Selektar. In the film, it is Sally's decision to ignore the reality and choose the stage and the appearance of happiness. This happens after she has already had the abortion and has separated from Cliff. At the Cameri, we see her performing the song and losing her baby while doing it. A musical number becomes a shocking scene of a young woman whose life is crumbling, and she continues to provide us with the amusement of the cabaret amid increasing hysteria, until she flings the microphone down on the floor.

These are just a few of the things I have to say about this production. It proves that theatrical entertainment can be a fascinating artistic experience, if only the materials, the actors, the stage people and the audience are taken seriously with the respect they deserve.