A Cabaret on Fisherman's Wharf

It’s an old story: a naïve young American travels to a foreign country, falls in love, and discovers the harsher side of life.  In Cabaret, in a production by the MPC Theatre Company directed by Gary Bolen, playing for one more weekend at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theatre, the American’s sentimental education takes place in a Germany about to fall into Nazi madness, lending a sinister edge to the tale of the innocent abroad.

The intimacy of the Wharf Theatre enhances the illusion that we, the audience, are inside the Kit Kat Club, the decadent Berlin cabaret where the play opens.  Its Master of Ceremony (Peter Hoffman) is both character and ghoulish guide to the unfolding of the plot.  “Bleibe, reste, stay,” he creepily croons in the opening number, encouraging the club’s patrons, and by extension the audience of Cabaret, to forget about the world outside, no matter how menacing.

Indeed, denial is as common as schnapps for the characters who make up the small, insular world of Cabaret (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb).  Cliff (Rob Devlin), is a struggling writer who has restlessly moved from one city to another, desperate to find the inspiration that will translate into success—that age-old American imperative.  On the train to Berlin, he meets Ernst (Erik James Morton), a young German who advises him to stay at a boardinghouse run by Fräulein Schneider (Phyllis Davis).  Later, he meets the Englishwoman Sally Bowles (Jill Miller), a talented and brassy singer, at the Kit-Kat Club.  The high-strung, impetuous Sally is delighted by his impromptu recitation of “Casey at the Bat,” and before long—she is a woman always in search of a new adventure—she convinces Cliff to let her move into his room.

Devlin is appealingly grounded as the earnest Cliff, and he and Miller exhibit a fine chemistry in their scenes.  Yet it was the play’s subplot, involving Fräulein Schneider and another of her tenants, the Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Mitchell Davis), that proved the more compelling romance of the production.  There is a tender scene involving the gift of a pineapple that for this viewer sums up the tragic world of Cabaret more than its flashier numbers: doom and destruction are but moments away, and still a couple growing in fondness for each other, neither of them young, can turn toward each other, and gently, hopefully, dream of the future.  Phyllis Davis and Mitchell Davis are superb in their roles, subtle and nuanced and very moving.

It’s the flashy numbers, of course, that provide the context for the play’s evocation of Germany’s slide into evil and chaos, while also entertaining the audience.  Hoffman is excellent as the Master of Ceremonies, the all-knowing, satiric conscience of the play, teetering between malevolence and mischief.  He appears in several scenes with the gaudy Kit Kat girls (Michelle Boulware, Lara Fern, Stephanie Woods and Marissa Merrill; Camila de la Llata was ill at the performance I attended), who dance and smirk and thrust with marvelous confidence.

Miller has a fine voice and gives a winning performance as Sally, belting out her big numbers (“Cabaret” and “Maybe This Time”) with aplomb.  Sally lives on the surface of things, her mind perpetually alight, uninterested in the darker currents gathering around the Kit Kat Club.  Only near the end, in an argument with Cliff, do we see a sharper edge in Miller’s portrayal, when she accuses him of living in as much of a dream as he thinks she does.

Tara Marie Lucido is the devious Fräulein Kost, one of Fräulein Schneider’s tenants; the ensemble performers Marc Layus, Nico Abiera, Clark Brown and Jesse Huston round out the strong cast.  The accomplished choreography is by Susan Cable, with musical direction by Barney Hulse.

One of the most chilling numbers in Cabaret is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a sweetly melodic tune that takes on a darker hue when it is revealed as a Nazi anthem.  It is first sung (quite beautifully) by Isaiah Boulware, a young Brownshirt; gradually, others join in, rising to a chorus that will soon drown out the diverse voices of the Kit Kat Club and Fräulein Schneider’s boardinghouse.  I thought of this song as I exited the theatre and was plunged into the seething crowd of summer tourists on the wharf.  Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret is almost fifty years old; it was first produced in 1966, a mere twenty-one years after the liberation of the camps.  Yet its message is still fresh: how easily a crowd can be seduced, up to and past the brink of evil, into believing the old song-and-dance that someone else is to blame for our troubles, that we are better than they are, that if only we could get rid of those people, why then everything would be grand.

Cabaret, presented by the MPC Theatre Company at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theatre in Monterey through July 15.  831-646-4213 or www.mpctheatre.com.