"Cabaret" at Pantages Looks to Our Past to Warn Us of Our Future

With its tale of lost souls living in Berlin during the rise of the Third Reich, "Cabaret" packs a powerful and timely punch.

"So, What? We just wait until the next election?"

Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson) asks this of Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran) in the Roundabout Theatre Company production of "Cabaret" now playing at the Hollywood Pantages. Schultz is a Jewish fruit-vendor living in 1930s Germany, and Schneider fears what their romantic relationship might mean for her future if the Nazis rise to power.

The question is one that belongs to our collective past, weighted with the knowledge of the unspeakable horror that would come with that next election of which Herr Schultz speaks. Yet, when uttered in this production, it was met with titters of uncomfortable laughter in the midst of a room that also awaits an election with bated breath, hoping it will not pitch us back into the fascism of the 1930s.

This is the true power of "Cabaret," resonant since its Broadway debut in 1966—to demonstrate how tyranny comes to power amidst ignorance and complicity. Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss), Cliff (Lee Aaron Rosen), and Fraulein Schneider are not cruel, intolerant people; they are merely too caught up with their own troubles and fear for their own survival to take notice of the rising tide around them until it's too late. They privilege their self-preservation above all else. And the Emcee (Randy Harrison) beckons them, and the audience, into a world where "life is beautiful" and you can "forget your troubles." Presiding over the action with a sinister glee, he alternates between promoting ignorance of the seeming end of the world and revealing the dark underbelly of the cabaret (and Germany by proxy).

All of this is brought to life masterfully in this sinister, sexy production led by a superb cast. As the Emcee, Randy Harrison is at turns frightening, heart-breaking, hilarious and savage. He expertly fulfills his role as the puppet master, welcoming the audience in as a ghoulish master of ceremonies and shocking us as he deteriorates into a figure of manic self-loathing. Joel Grey immortalized the role in the original Broadway production and onscreen, but Harrison makes it entirely his own with his journey from puppet master to broken-down doll.

Andrea Goss is powerfully heartbreaking as Sally Bowles, a woman who has put up so many walls she throws real love away with both hands. Her carefully preserved veneer of callous indifference and promiscuity barely masks a gaping wound and vulnerability underneath that reveals itself like a raw nerve ending in "Maybe This Time" and her eleven o'clock number, "Cabaret." At the end of the titular song, she throws her microphone stand to the ground and our hearts plunge into our stomachs with it.

Ned Noyes also gives a nuanced performance as Nazi sympathizer Ernst Ludwig. Affable (and a bit bumbling, even), he presents us with the insidious nature of hate and intolerance, reminding us that true evil lurks in the hearts of those we might least expect it from.

But the real stand-outs of the production are Shannon Cochran and Mark Nelson as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Their storyline, of two older people who feel that love has passed them by until they find a second chance in each other, is profoundly tragic. This secondary plot was foolishly cut from the iconic film adaptation—and what a shame, as it provides the heart and soul of the production in a play filled with individuals too afraid to know their own hearts. Cochran and Nelson breathe life into these characters with a touching delicacy, making their inevitably doomed romance all the more heartbreaking. Their courtship over a pineapple ("It Couldn't Please Me More") is simple and sweet—a humorous way to convey the touching manner in which these two lost souls have found each other.

Cochran makes Schneider's dilemma one of raw intimacy —a palpable sense of regret hanging over the choice she feels backed into by fear. Nelson is devastating in his simplicity. He makes Schultz appear a kindly, funny, good-hearted man, but never a figure of pity. Through Nelson's small glances and vocal pauses, we sense he knows how much danger he might be in, but still he cannot turn his back on the only life he's ever known. Nelson layers charm, warmth, and good humor over a profound ache and sense of loneliness that only deepens as the play goes on; he breaks your heart with his smile and dogged sense of optimism. In his interpretation of Schultz, he truly brings home how many loyal, hard-working, average citizens were destroyed by the Nazis, making the personal universal.

In its choreography and musical numbers, the play returns to its seamy roots, making you feel more like you are watching a real number in a gritty nightclub than a choreographed Broadway production. This means the hallmarks of the film—Fosse Jazz hands, "Mein Herr" on chairs, etc.—is noticeably absent. While the unsavory nature of the entire proceedings is enhanced by this Rob Marshall choreography, the dance numbers do fall a little flat without that Fosse pizazz (since he essentially perfected the balance between sordid subject matter and flawless choreography).

The lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer elevates the production to a true work of art, using light and shadow to isolate characters in moments of interior struggle and to powerfully invoke the propaganda of Nazi Germany. Act 2 opens with a kick-line that devolves into goose-stepping, and Eisenhauer lights the dancers from below to cast a series of imposing shadows across the stage, both suggesting a larger army and the frightening power implicated in this military-style marching. The final silhouette she creates, backlighting the stage with white, leaves all the characters nameless and faceless —the tools and victims of the Third Reich. But it also powerfully removes the specificity of history, making this tableau any moment in time.

Though this revival of "Cabaret" began in 1998 and returned to Broadway in 2014, there has never been a more crucial time to mount this production. The characters discuss who is a "real German" and speak of returning Germany to former glory, as we watch politicians draw similar lines about the definition of true Americans and making America great again.

The Emcee invites us in to forget our troubles, but this production powerfully does the opposite—making a clarion call for action and awareness over self-preservation and ignorance. Our time in the Kit Kat Club serves to warn us that history could be repeating itself and invokes us to avoid complacency. "Bleibe, Reste, Stay"—we should do anything but.

"Cabaret" is now playing at the Hollywood Pantages (6233 Hollywood Blvd.) through August 7th. Tickets start at $29. For more information, visit www.hollywoodpantages.com/cabaret.

Contact Theatre & Dance Editor Maureen Lee Lenker here.