Hitler, heartbreak and lingerie10/29/2014
On the chalkboard outside the Des Moines Social Club Basement, I saw some sad news. I was there for last week’s late-night “Cabaret,” but for this week, I saw conventional start times. That’s a shame. This is a show made for after-hours.
“Cabaret” remains best known for the 1972 movie, an Oscar-winner. Its songs, while irresistible, sketch a tragedy: a Berlin affair on the verge of Hitler’s takeover. The opener, “Wilkommen,” invites us to get nasty; “Maybe This Time” yearns after better; and the title song urges everyone to live fast and die young. There’s even an earworm of a Nazi anthem.
In the 1990s, the show went even darker. Its emcee became more of a snake, indifferent to who he bit — or bedded — and its Kit Kat Club was more like the Bada-Bing from “The Sopranos.” Downtown, director David Van Cleave and designer Tim Wisgerhof do without stripper poles, but there’s plenty of skin and suggestion in an “immersive 360” production.
The band swap instruments as casually as the Kit Kat girls and boys do their partners. The dramatic blocking often sets up cross-the-room interplay. As the Nazi hymn swells along the bar, at the wall opposite, a person of Jewish descent stands staring, aghast. Another time, on another wall, a poster gets ripped away to expose a swastika. It’s as if you’ve entered the underbelly of “South Pacific.”
Not that “Cabaret” lacks warmth. The romance of the aging Jew and his German neighbor yields a heartbreaking ballad, and even the local whore is moved to sing along. On that number, John Robinson’s voice soared, and when he was joined by Sarah Bodle, as the working girl, their textures combined marvelously. Bodle proved an eye-opener in her Des Moines debut and not just for how she asserted her cleavage. She provided a mellow counterpoint to Kamillah Kamp-Bey, as the mercurial Sally Bowles. The Bowles role is all torch songs, and Kamp-Bey got that, leaking tears as she insisted “life is a cabaret.”
She’s crying over her lost love, the straight man (more or less) at the orgy. In that role, Charlie Reese played up the torment, hunching his shoulders against his would-be seducers. I especially liked the reptilian smile Jonathan Brugioni flashed as club manager.
The Lizard King of the Kit Kat, however, is the emcee. Van Cleave has gone cross-gender, and Katelyn McBurney justifies the hunch. She hooks us with her first pinched note, a witch’s “wilkommen,” and yet her finest moment is the one time she allows her decadent veneer to crack. Just once, during the Nazi anthem, McBurney goes subdued, uncertain. Wicked is one thing; evil is another.
Overheard in the Lobby: Tallgrass Theater is starting its season this weekend, with “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised].” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.