At the engagement party of their landlady and her Jewish fiancee, Cliff Bradshaw and Sally Bowles huddled together in one part of the room. They looked over to a small crowd, where party guests broke into the patriotic German anthem—and Nazi marching song—“Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
It was silent as the last notes rang out over the stage. Members of the audience held a tentative pause. Then, slowly, they began to clap, still unsure of the etiquette for a Nazi anthem in a musical.
Bowles and Bradshaw—real-life actors Jay Eddy and Nate Houran—set the scene for The Harpers’ chilling Cabaret, on at Lyric Hall Fridays through Sundays, July 6 through 15. After opening in June, the show has struck as remarkably timely.
Set at the decadent Kit Kat Klub in 1931 Weimar Germany, Cabaret revolves around American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Nate Houran) and second-rate showgirl Sally Bowles (Jay Eddy) who fall in love in hedonistic Berlin. Their timing is off: Germany is transitioning from the Weimar Republic to Nazism. The sub-plot of the musical is the romance between their landlady Fraulein Schneider (Elena Adcock) and her fiancee Herr Schultz (Raphael Massie) as their close friend Herr Ludwig (Jeremy Funke) becomes more involved in the Nazi Party.
The emcee (Sammi Katz) at the Kit Kat Klub makes it clear at the top of the show: “In here, we have no troubles.” It’s a reference to the musical itself, giving the show an unsettling allure with sexual overtures. The small cast and small space intensifies the weird sensuality of the trashy club, and the mounting political tension outside of it. As the emcee, Katz elicits to urge to get up and run from the theater, but the curiosity to stick around and experience the off-color performance.
The magic of Cabaret is that it lets the audience forget about the political tension and rise of fascism despite its early warning signs. Cliff, unsure how to go about learning German history and culture, purchases a copy of Mein Kampf. When Sally protests that the owner of the Kit Kat Klub can’t fire her without two weeks notice, he retorts, “Why don’t you organize a union then? Join the communists marching in the streets.”
And Sally, whose obsession with her career makes her politically oblivious, dismisses the jab and begins plotting her next move, considering herself fired.
But these small amusements escalate into the Nazi political landscape. A running point of humor throughout act one is the free-wheeling Fraulein Kost (Brianna Bagley) who lives in Schneider’s boarding house, and is often reprimanded for sailors that leave her room in the morning. Annoyed by Schneider’s meddling in her one-night stands, Kost outs Schultz as a Jew to Ludwig, Cliff’s first friend in Germany who falls in with the Nazi Party.
A small theater company, The Harpers make the production happen with nine cast members — who are also their own orchestra. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is the true test of the cast as a large and intense ensemble piece. Cliff with Sally, and Schneider with Schultz, shrink on stage. Suddenly the other five cast members who had separated themselves as “true patriotic Germans” do have the power of an entire engagement party of anti-Semitic nationalists suddenly breaking into anthem.
There are also more characters than there are cast members, leading to multiple castings that often provide a foil for characters. For example Funke plays both Herr Ludwig and Bobby, Cliff’s ex-lover. When Bobby goes in for a kiss, cautiously bisexual Cliff backs up and Bobby reassures him: “This is Berlin, here you can be yourself.”
As Ludwig, Funke shows the other side of Berlin and the fascist regime that would make mass killing of homosexuals part of its agenda. Cliff’s caution is seen as irrelevant in Weimar Republic Germany, but as Berlin marches towards fascism, he is resolved in his apprehension and eventual decision to go back home before things get worse.
Cliff is the only character who is convinced that Berlin will soon be unsafe for him. Schultz tells him that he knows that the Nazi Party is just one political faction of many, and that he knows the German people because he is German. And how could such a far-right regime succeed in the hedonistic Berlin of the Kit Kat Klub, Cliff’s ex-lover Bobby, and Fraulein Kost’s nightly hookups? Especially in today’s political climate, Cabaret is an example of how polarized societies and political regimes respond to each other in cycles, crossing over in unthinkable ways.
At the end of the show, all the members of the Kit Kat Klub are escorted out by Ludwig, including the emcee who takes part in some anti-Semitic comedy by the second act. Perhaps Funke sensed that awkward pause after the end of Act I, because he did not return to the stage to bow with his cast members at a recent performance. Even in the pretend world of theater, the close walls and small stage of Lyric Hall made the specter of fascism incredibly real.
Remaining performances of Cabaret run July 6-8 and 13-15 at Lyric Hall, 827 Whalley Ave. in New Haven's Westville neighborhood. For tickets and more information, click here .