Life is a cabaret, old chum. But "Cabaret" is anything but a cabaret — when you're trying to walk in the Footsteps of Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and the other stars who, through the years, have lit up this ambitious 1966 John Kander-Fred Ebb musical about Berlin on the cusp of the Nazi era.
"I think it's brave of us," says director Alan Demovsky, who is staging the show for Bergen County Players with a cast of 19 and a seven-piece band.
"Wonderful as our Sally is, she's not a belter or a superstar performer," Demovsky says. "She's exactly what I wanted."
That's Sally as in Sally Bowles (Messalina Morley of Ridgewood) – the louche free spirit at the center of Christopher Isherwood's stories about life in "decadent" Weimar Germany. In the Oscar-winning 1972 Bob Fosse movie, of course, she was played by Liza Minnelli. But great as that performance was (it made Minnelli a star), Demovsky points out – and he's not the first – that Minnelli was really too talented to play a mediocre singer in a second-rate cabaret.
"Liza Minnelli was wrong, wonderful as she was," Demovsky says. "The fact that it was Liza Minnelli kind of spoiled it for me. [Sally] is really this drug addict, who slept around a lot."
All of which is to say that "Cabaret" is not your old-school, jolly musical with white-bread characters and a happy ending. The show, which features such well-known tunes as "Cabaret," "Wilkommen," "Money, Money" and "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," plays at the Oradell theater through Oct. 8.
In fact, "Cabaret" in 1966 was one of the first of the adult, "high-concept" shows that broke established molds, went to dark places and generally challenged the audience. Homosexuality, prostitution, anti-Semitism, left- and right-wing politics all enter into it. The rise of Nazism is central to the story arc. In fact, it was a little too high-concept for 1966: Director Harold Prince had to tone down lyrics, evade certain issues (the gay aspects were dialed way down) and add conventional, sentimental Broadway songs to appeal to the matinee ladies. "They couldn't go full out with it," Demovsky says.
But as the creative team revised "Cabaret" through the years – first for Bob Fosse's great 1972 movie, then for a series of revivals in the 1990s – the show became more and more itself.
In this version, based on the 1998 Broadway revival, the "onstage" world of the cabaret and the "offstage" world of Sally's boarding house mirror each other: The nightclub performers in one scene become spectators of the offstage drama in the next. "The cabaret performers are always observing," Demovsky says.
And the show now makes its points much more explicitly. The weird, marionette-like cabaret emcee — played memorably by Joel Grey in 1966 and 1972, and Alan Cumming in the 1990s — was always an enigmatic, slightly creepy figure. Taking its cue from the 1998 revival, this production (with Jimmy Vinetti of Bloomfield playing the part) ends by showing us exactly who and what he is.
"He slowly takes off his floor-length coat, and underneath is his concentration-camp outfit, with a pink triangle and a yellow star," Demovsky says (in the camps, yellow stars indicated Jews; pink triangles denoted homosexuals). "Slowly he turns, and the upstage house becomes all white, and the lights shine into the audience. There's no music for curtain calls.
"What was interesting, in the previews, I could feel the audience [change]," Demovsky says. "The emcee is not a likable character; they're leery of him. He's a scary clown. Until that last scene, and then I just feel the audience suddenly becomes very, very sympathetic towards him."
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