Review: Pandora Productions delivers emotionally charged ‘Cabaret’

Pandora Productions’ “Cabaret” continues Sept. 15-29. | Photo by Eli Keel

There’s a popular meme these days. It’s a dog sitting in a room that is engulfed in flames. “This is fine,” says the dog.

In many ways, it’s the answer — or at least an answer — to a question many people are asking these days. Are we OK? Will anything be OK ever again?

“This will blow over” and “Everything will be fine” are lines frequently said by characters in Pandora Productions’ current offering of “Cabaret.”

The evergreen 1966 musical has been in near constant performance since it first opened. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and a script by Joe Masteroff, the show combines cheekily sexy musical numbers with a frightening and difficult plot revolving around various people trying to go about their lives during the rise of the Third Reich in Weimar Germany.

Lauren McCombs and Jack Wallen in “Cabaret” | Photo by Eli Keel

Every major revival of “Cabaret,” including the 1972 film, has come with sizable changes to the script, songs and score. Here, Pandora’s Artistic Director Michael Drury uses the changes from the 1993 London production directed by Sam Mendes.

It’s a particularly brutal approach to the material. I prefer it that way, but some might wish for the glossy-eyed winking of the film.

In many versions of “Cabaret,” the “main” plot — that of American author Cliff Bradshaw (Jordan Price) and his romance with English nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Lauren McCombs) — ends up being less interesting than the musical numbers and performance of The Emcee, the master of ceremonies at the Kit Kat Club, where Bowles works and Bradshaw drinks.

That’s certainly the case here. Jack Wallen’s Emcee adds a masculine edge to the flamboyance of the character. It adroitly drives home the uncomfortable truth that the Emcee’s hyper-sexuality is a thin cover for rage.

That rage both highlights the toxicity of the male gaze present in the night club scenes and stands in for the unfocused rage of the German people.

When The Emcee appears outside of the club, moments set just outside of reality, Wallen rips the rage away and we see that it’s a cover for the helplessness of absolute despair. As director, Drury rightly has enough faith in Wallen’s performance to let those reality-adjacent moments hang and linger, with Wallen often serving as a silent focal point for entire scenes.

The romance between landlady Fräulein Schneider (Georgette Kleier) and fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Jim Hesselman) is obviously more germane to German history than Bradshaw and Bowels’ romance. In Schultz’s first appearance, he wishes Bradshaw much mozel during his time in Berlin, a not so subtle way of letting the audience know he is Jewish.

In addition to the dramatic importance of the B plot, Kleier and Hesselman’s performances cement them as the most engaging real world characters. Kleier struggles once or twice with some of the vocal elements on a technical level, but her acting and performance easily outweighed the deficit.

Both Kleier and Hesselman bring tremulousness to their interactions — the timidity of those who believe they have missed the opportunity for any love in their lives. The strength of their connection as actors and the audience’s knowledge of what is coming for the Jews in Germany make the love story heartbreaking.

McCombs vocally nails the many show-stopping numbers nightclub performer Sally Bowles sings, both “on stage” at the Kit Kat Club and offstage in real life. As a nightclub singer, Bowles is confident and in control, but offstage there must be a generous helping of weakness mixed in with her bravado.

McCombs never lets that weakness come through. Still, watching her perform songs like “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr” is nevertheless pretty great.

As Bowles’ romantic foil, and the ostensible lead in the show, Price’s Bradshaw is serviceable. Price has a solid singing ability that carries him through the music. He’s charming, sincere and good-looking — everything you need for a leading man in a musical.

Jack Wallen and Jordan Price in “Cabaret” | Photo by Eli Keel

Price does his best, but the character archetype of the American white person traveling the world and learning difficult lessons is the only thing about “Cabaret” that really hasn’t aged well. In part, it’s because the character has been transplanted and reiterated so many times since 1966 — Ewan McGregor in “Moulin Rouge” leaps to mind. It’s become a stale trope.

More off-putting is the self-righteous American mansplaining to everyone else how freedom should work and extolling the virtues of monogamy and motherhood. While the script is very aware that American moral superiority is compromised, if not ludicrous, the side eye thrown at Bradshaw isn’t enough to balance the loathing I felt for his uber-privileged whiteness.

The choreography by Maggie Patten is suitably sexy, and the chorus of three nasty boys and six nasty women keeps thing hot. The movement is never subtle — The Emcee spends a lot of time fondling the chorus boys’ crotches, then approaching the chorus girls and grabbing them, too.

But “Cabaret,” in any of its incarnations, isn’t about subtlety, it’s about the exact opposite — humanity’s ability to sit in the middle of obvious calamity and proclaim “This will blow over.”

Things obviously didn’t turn out well in Germany in the 1930s. Like any good piece of period drama, “Cabaret” stays relevant by turning the actions of the play into questions about today: Is this OK? Will this all “just blow over”?

“Cabaret” is Pandora’s answer to those questions. Nazis are marching, immigrant children are being herded into camps. Everything is on fire. And it is not “fine.”

“Cabaret” continues Sept. 15-16, 20-22 and 27-29 at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 16 at 2:30 p.m., and Sept. 23 at 5:30 p.m. All shows are performed at the Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $20.