As cautionary tales go, "Cabaret" is still a niche unto itself.
The oft-revived, Tony Award-winning musical-turned-classic film uses Fred Ebb and John Kander's catchy, clever songs, a colorful cast of societal castoffs and the ominous backdrop of Nazism's rise in 1931 Berlin to remind us that greed, poverty, bigotry, debauchery and blissful ignorance can be a lethal cocktail when they're all swizzle-sticked together.
Or, as the diva-esque club singer Sally Bowles says innocently in the second act, "It's only politics. What has that got to do with us?"
A lot, as it turned out back then, according to this engaging yet foreboding tale about the rise of the hatred that led to the Holocaust, but was written as the Civil Rights wars raged. Ever notice what the initials of the play's infamous Kit Kat Klub are?
But, oh, but what fun its ominous message can be to watch, especially from the relatively safe distance of time, and in the luxurious atmosphere of the Plaza Theatre, a movie palace that opened just one year before the decadent song and dance of the fictitious Kit Kat Klub takes place.
A sold-out crowd of 2,000 was on hand Monday night to watch the latest installment in the theater's popular, five-year-old Broadway in El Paso series, not a bad turnout for a traditionally slow night of the week — and the first of spring break. As we weather our own period of economic uncertainty and political gridlock, it just goes to show that the arts and entertainment provide a certain degree of escapist comfort.
This particular bus-and-truck tour, which opened a five-month run of one-nighters last January, features a largely young and relatively inexperienced cast. Paula Hammons Sloan's direction and choreography obviously are designed to keep things moving at a steady pace, which they did mostly, helped by smooth scene transitions that often required cast members to subtly move and remove props.
There were times when the energy lagged, the young cast seemed more focused on hitting its marks than confidently hitting stride and the youthful vigor of one of its principal cast members was at times distracting and a bit much.
The cast's youthful energy was goosed along by Zac Mordechai, who played the club's Emcee as a guy who is both giddily deranged and eerily haunted by what's going on around him. He indulges the moral and sexual decadence of the time in songs like "Two Ladies," about a predeliction for more than one lover at a time, and "The Money Song" (his only duet with the Sally Bowles character).
The evolution of his almost clownish pancake makeup was a nice touch, looking almost like a ventriloquist's dummy at the beginning, before turning haggard and smudged by the Nazis' rise at the end.
He's young, yes, but brings a certain flamboyance and delicious debauchery to the proceedings, though Mordecai had a tendency, despite his ability to employ a full range of his singing and speaking voices, to lay the German accent on a bit too thick at times.
The English accent seemed to be a challenge for newcomer Oakley Boycott as Sally Bowles, the overbearing, possibly psychologically damaged young singer who is the club's star attraction and the flighty romantic interest of aspiring American writer Clifford Bradshaw, played with a certain all-American, straight-laced charm by Vincent Ignatius Oddo. He had one of the finer voices in a cast full of competent singers, but didn't create much believable chemistry with his co-star.
Boycott's youthful enthusiasm compensated for some of her inconsistencies, but Sally's too substantial of a character to be as distracting as the young actress made her at times. Her accent varied between the kind of snobby American upper cruster common in '30s high society movies and a British brogue (Sally's British in the play, American in the movie) that seemed to disappear on occasion.
Boycott tended to play this overwrought character a little too over the top, sometimes bordering on cloying. Her real strengths were a solid singing voice (showcased in the play's key title song) and the dramatic chops she showed in the pivotal scene where Cliff realizes he has to leave Berlin alone.
Better were Amy L. Welk as the conflicted landlord, Fraulein Schneider, and veteran actor Jay Strauss as Herr Schultz, the Jewish fruit stand owner with whom she finds love, only to have to make a difficult choice when the writing and the swastikas are on the wall. Welk had one of the finer voices in the cast and played older pretty well despite her apparent youth. Strauss is an old-timer with a pleasant voice and a certain grandfatherly charm that added real gravitas to such a sympathetic character.
Considering the size of the crowd Monday night, both the performance and the audience's response to it were a little more subdued that one would expect. It's hard to tell which impacted what the most.
One thing's for sure. It takes a lot more than youthful inexperience to detract from the intoxicating yet sobering message of "live and let live" tolerance that Ebb and Kander gave us more than 40 years ago.