Maxwell Bolton as the Master of Ceremonies in the UDM Theatre Company's production of "Cabaret." Photo: Greg Grobis

'Cabaret': Whistling past the graveyard

By John Quinn

"There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies ... and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany...and it was the end of the world." That's an unusual ending to an American musical, but "Cabaret" is an unusual play. Far from the light themes of musical comedy, it's better described as musical tragedy. It's also an unusual choice for a university production, since the plot's nihilism seems out of place in a setting associated with bright futures. But director Greg Grobis and the University of Detroit-Mercy Theatre Company have mounted an emotional rollercoaster ride. In fact, casting students in these roles adds an extra somber note: One wonders how characters so young can be so jaded.

"Cabaret," with book by Joe Masteroff and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, is a peek at the last days of the Weimar Republic and the people who diddled while Berlin burned. They "...have no problems?" They've masked their problems with denial, compromise and a thick coat of greasepaint.

American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Patrick O'Reilly), one novel into his career, is bumming around Europe seeking inspiration for the next. On the train to Berlin he meets a friendly German, Ernst Ludwig (Joel A. Frazee), who recommends places of lodging and entertainment. Those are the boarding house of Fraulein Schneider and the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy dive if ever there was one. Cliff meets the headliner of the review, young Brit Sally Bowles (Susan Boonenberg) and a quirky relationship blooms.

Berlin in 1931 might have seemed an endless round of parties and carefree sex, but as the plot unfolds the bright Band-Aid is ripped off to reveal a festering sore. "Cabaret" is structured to reveal poisonous bigotry, not only through the plot but through the bawdy numbers in the Kit Kat Klub's burlesque. The title number has become a karaoke standard, but in context the song "Cabaret" is a desperate attempt to hold off a nightmare.

Mixed student-professional productions will hold varying levels of talent; after all, performances are polished through experience. The UDM troupe is a cut above the average. O'Reilly brings a winning personality and a big tenor voice to Clifford. Also winning is Boonenberg's Sally. Boonenberg has the brash and sass of this complex role; yet one would hope to see more of the fragile 19 year old behind the disguise.

But the role that always leaves an audience with memories (and nightmares) is the Master of Ceremonies, played here by Maxwell Bolton. He's an oily satyr, rouged lips always poised for a sneer. He also has the lion's share of the musical numbers. Bolton is up to the task and is a compelling Emcee regardless of how repellent the role. "Cabaret" contains what may be the ugliest number in musical history, "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes," a pas de deux for emcee and female gorilla. Here it's absolutely gut-wrenching.

The cast is gifted with the presence of two professional actors in the "older" roles. Diane Hill as Spinster Schneider and Greg Trazskoma as her greengrocer beau, Herr Schultz, slipped into these roles as easily as stepping into comfortable shoes. Their delicate interplay in song and story are a nice counterpoint to the grittier parts of the play.

One of the most successful blends of talents in this production is between musical director Tara Stevens and Chris Jakob on the sound board. The principal singers are miked, but you don't notice the amplification. Words and music blend naturally; everything is clear even in the undependable acoustics of Marygrove's theater.

"Cabaret" is a cautionary tale for anyone who might say, "Politics? What has that to do with us?" Judging from the current state of Washington D.C., it's a lesson that must be learned over and over.



UDM Theater Company & Marygrove College Music and Dance at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit. Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 21. $25. 313-993-3270.

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