Cabaret: Tits, Ass, and Monopoly Money

In the 1972 Bob Fosse film Cabaret, an American Sally Bowles, played by Liza Minnelli, falls in love with a rambunctious Englishman who is — as she is — having an affair with her bisexual boss. Whereas in the 1966 stage play Cabaret, it was Sally who was English, her boyfriend who was American, and there was a wholesome subtextual storyline about their elderly landlady’s romance with a Jewish fruit merchant.

In the Ordway’s current production of Cabaret, there’s a little bit of each mixed in.

Putatively, this Cabaret is the stage play of ’66, with an English Sally and a regal German landlady (played by the absolutely magnificent Suzy Hunt). But it also alludes to the male-on-male dalliances of its hero, the American writer Cliff Bradshaw, which is confusing because the complications here are completely ignored. In fact, other than the single reference to his cruising days, Bradshaw, as played by Louis Hobson, comes off as a well-scrubbed prude. And when Sally turns up pregnant with a baby she claims could be anyone’s, he immediately volunteers — no qualms about her decided female-ness — to make her his wife.

In between there are dance numbers introduced by the "emcee" (Nick Garrison), a shiny-headed bald man wearing lipstick with an impossible loud and grating voice. He’s impossible to love at first, as he descends from the ceiling in the Cabaret sign’s "C," but by intermission he is impossible not to. A feat that Garrison effects by being alternately funny, self-deprecating, clownish, and sad.

There is also that strident back story about the Nazis: they are infiltrating the club through the person of Ernst Ludwig, Bradshaw’s patron and friend. Ludwig is a tall, ebony-haired Aryan who somehow riles the entire club into raising their arms to the Third Reich. The fall-out comes first when gentle Herr Schultz, the fruit seller, has a brick hurled through his window. And then when Bradshaw, the stalwart American, gets beaten because he refuses to put up with all that Gestapo guff.

I wish I could say that I loved this play. I do love the Ordway; I think it’s as stately a theater as the Twin Cities has. The set was amazing: morphing from nightclub to modest rooming house with the twitch of a few items, by evening’s end lit with colored bulbs that gave it a festive, garish air.

There were some truly outstanding performances — the best by far by Ms. Hunt who infused her Fraulein Schneider with imperious yet tentatively regal carriage. Her voice was pure starch and honey. I could have listened to her all night. Unfortunately, though, most of the songs were sung by Tari Kelly who played Sally Bowles. And while she was a dead ringer for Minnelli (at least from Row S) her theory seemed to be that sheer volume would make up for feeling or finesse.

The dancers were lovely and scantily-clad in a pleasing, authentically bawdy 1930’s Berliner sort of way; God knows, I like hot pants and fishnets and sequined bras as much as the next red-blooded American girl. There’s even a very charming moment during Money Makes the World Go Round when Monopoly money drifted from the rafters and into the audience, twirling in the twinkling lights.

But in the end, as the curtain came down, I felt as if all the brilliant parts of the Ordway’s Cabaret had not quite added up to something as whole and extraordinary as I would have liked. True, they missed the mark by a very small margin — and this may be fixed by Tuesday, the official opening night — but as it is there are uneven edges. The first act was too long; the second felt incredibly rushed.

More important, the story was not consistent. I wanted either a playboy love interest or a wide-eyed gee golly one, not a weird mish-mash of the two. And without that, the production fell just short of what it should.

Not that you would have known to see the audience at the end. I know. . . .I’ve been beating this drum for years. But NOTHING to my mind marks Minnesotans as more universally ignorant than the standing ovation, which is obligatory at every single concert, opera, comedy routine, and play. I am sick and tired of going to shows that are good but not great and watching everyone around me jump out of their seats like so many obsequious, brainless cows.

Yes, I feel strongly about this. But to my mind, it’s like over praising a child for efforts that fall short. How is a toddler to learn if you keep showering kisses down because he or she piddled almost in the potty? By doing this, you simply reinforce the puddle on the floor.

And so it is with the stage, where standing ovations for performances that are almost but not quite extraordinary, like Cabaret, lower the bar. Which given the talent and resources and venues we have here in town is a goddamn shame.