'Cabaret' is a jarring, sobering celebration of life

By John David Back This may be the only play I've ever been to where I don't think anyone had any idea what it was about before they saw it. At least, I assume so,…

Photo by Zackariah Cole //

By John David Back

This may be the only play I’ve ever been to where I don’t think anyone had any idea what it was about before they saw it. At least, I assume so, judging by the collective gasps and hundred-yard-stares as the rows milled out.

Let me start at the beginning, though.

Most performances start with you sitting in the audience looking at a curtain. “Cabaret,” playing at the Aronoff Center through May 22, starts with you looking at scantily (and filthily) clad women doing lunges and stretches and smoking cigarettes. They shouted “NO PHOTO! NEIN!” at bumbling audience members trying to snatch Instagram shots. It was vaguely erotic. They were playful but unimpressed, smoking what I assume were imitation cigarettes. There were men too, shirtless with vests, playing clarinets or the trombone.

The first thing that happens when the curtain drops is every line in human sexuality starts to get blurred. The German Emcee, both of the club and the performance-at-large, is neither gay nor straight and makes no bones about it. Will he kiss a woman on the mouth? Will he grab one of the men by the crotch? Sure! He does both in the first three minutes of the performance. It’s a splash of cold water straight to the face that only serves to start heating you up – whether you like it or not.

The musical centers around an American, Cliff, who is a novelist in Berlin to finish his book. He stays in a cheap hotel run by a near-stately German woman. He falls in love with the city and, despite his angst, the lifestyle it provides. A great paraphrased quote by him: “Berlin is like kids having a party who are just waiting for the parents to come home.”

This is Germany in 1930. Things are about to go downhill for this European nation in a hurry. He says this line to Sally, the female lead, whom he comes to live with and to love. She’s from London herself, though is as addicted to the town and the lifestyle as any natural born Berliner.

Underneath the singing and the champagne and the makeup-caked skin of the women and men of the Kit Kat Club lies a darkness, a certain sadness. Who can be happy in a world where you have to drink gin to forget who you are and what you do? When the first Nazi armband is revealed at an engagement party, I was one part shocked and one part embarrassed at my own oversight. I became so enamored with the flesh and blood pumping through these people and this club that I forgot to look at the whole picture.

The scene that struck me like a hammer — and skip this if you want to be surprised yourself — was the morning after the engagement party. The old fruit vendor, exposed as a Jew, is extolling his German-ness to his Aryan bride-to-be. He insists the Nazis can and will do nothing to him. He insists life will continue as normal.

Let me ask you this: How do you react when you know that a person’s entire race is about to be obliterated, and he’s simply shaking his fist in the face of this assured destruction? I can say without a doubt that my stomach fell to depths I didn’t know possible. I was crushed.

This play is mercurial. The ending is as energetic in its chaotic destruction of life as the beginning is energetic in the celebration of it. I left like everyone else: shellshocked, depressed, and not a little bit ashamed.

If you want to come face to face with your own humanity, you’ll not miss “Cabaret” for the world.


My notes from the show: 

– Women out on the stage
– yelling at them about the photography
– German accent
– young audience
– women stretching on stage in dirty robes, affecting sensuality but also a certain filth – love it
– man in open white vest playing clarinet
– smoking cigs. Doing blow.

Act One
– American Clifford coming to Germany. Berlin
– very sexual. Sensual at first in a way but a bit depraved or filthy. Jerky dancing mixed into the sexual
– woman near me right now is saying she’s not a prude but she is not entertained and it’s too much
– it’s a vaudeville or some other sort of cabaret
– Kit Kat club
– the performers play all the instruments – they are the orchestra
– the British girl reminds me of Mia Carruthers in the face, could be sisters
– Sally is a train wreck though (Mia is not) and is pregnant but trying to socially climb
– nazis make an appearance. Herr Ludwig
– the only true love story is the old couple. He turns out to be Jewish fruit vendor. Not good. Heartbroken
– Berlin is like a party where they are just waiting for the parents to come home. Love this.
– Clifford thinks he can save her and himself by having the baby. It won’t be the only tragedy.

Act Two
– things go downhill
– Germany and the cabaret is a shadow of itself
– cliff leaves
– Sally is ruined
– Jews are killed. Heartbreaking
– watching Schultz in the face of his whole race’s annihilation
– jarring. Sobering. Holy hell.
– the Emcee makeup started to run. Sally started to twitch. Everything went downhill. The orchestra was empty. Lights in the frame went out