Cabarets are known for overtly scandalous fun. As the titular song from BareStage Productions’ newest musical claims, a cabaret is a place to revel in life, drink wine, and “start celebrating.”
BareStage’s latest production does a great job of upholding this image of a cabaret — and then subverting it. The dances are fun, the music is definitive of the time period, and the costumes maintain the essence of Europe’s scandalous underbelly — while ominously set in 1930s Berlin.
What “Cabaret” does so brilliantly is best put by BareStage’s Emcee herself, Sofie Fier. “Something that seems so benign and almost fun and attractive at first can spur into this horrible spiral of hatred,” Fier said in an interview with The Daily Californian.
While the show does a masterful job of creating a fun and attractive environment, it does an even better job of displaying the consequences of passivity when confronted with evil. It’s a message based in the rise of Nazism, yet one with undeniable contemporary importance.
“ ‘Cabaret’ talks about the things that make us really uncomfortable and make us scared. It reminds us of what we hold close and how to protect those things and protect ourselves,” said director Lana Cosic.
This dark undertone, which later becomes central to character motivations and plot mobilization, is expressed through more than just political dialogue and dismal musical numbers — it also comes through intentionally uncomfortable staging and display. There’s an eerie red light perpetually in the background of all scenes, coupled with an off-putting green that follows the shows’ pungent anti-Semitic remarks. These lighting choices by Harry Fahn give BareStage’s version an extra kick, fully enhancing the production.
In the vein of kicks, the choreography wholly shaped audience perception, ensuring that this foreboding and ominous message was obvious and gripping. In one scene, after a balance of fast-paced footwork and Rockette-inspired homages, the dancers frighteningly transition to precise, Nazi motions.
“It juxtaposes the exposition. I’m hoping the audience will understand the weight that is going on,” said choreographer Joe Ayers.
These sharp polarizations are exactly what make “Cabaret” a perfectly subtle activist commentary. The show places the audience members in an initial situation of naïveté and then takes them on a psychological exploration of staying silent in an age of mass hate. “Cabaret” doesn’t just entertain — it educates.
But this lesson on compliance does not come without audience discomfort. The dancers aren’t afraid to get up close and personal with the audience, ranging from dancing through the aisles to singling out individual members.
“In a lot of productions, when you break the fourth wall, it can make the audience really uncomfortable,” Cosic said. Her choice was to fully embody the audience-performer disruption that so characterizes “Cabaret,” frightening the audience into action.
Through this place of disquietude, topics such as genocide and complicity can be fully interrogated rather than simply referenced. If the audience doesn’t have a reaction to watching an atrocity, then they will not react when confronted with one.
Cosic confronts the audience without hesitation. “It was my goal as the director to have the show teach the audience a lesson every night,” she said. “You’ve been sitting back watching this. You’ve been a bystander this whole time. What are you going to do next time something like this happens?”
This sort of intense interrogation is countered not only by the merriment of the Kit Kat Club but mainly by the endearing relationship between the elderly Schultz (Ethan Glasman) and kindhearted Schneider (Daryanna Lancet). While Sally (Kacey Mayeda) and Cliff (Walker Heintz) are meant to be the main characters, Glasman and Lancet steal the show. As individuals with a better mastery of the stage, Glasman and Lancet exuded a realistic chemistry, one more impactful than that of the principal couple.
This chemistry is only rivaled by that between “Cabaret” and its audience. “Cabaret” proves that bold, purposeful discomfort, when tastefully done, leaves an audience with more than just a great musical — it also inspires interpersonal growth and timeless relevance.
As Sally sings, “Maybe this time… something’s bound to begin” when it comes to the decision between being a complicit, passive bystander or espousing active morality.
“Cabaret” will run through April 29 at the Cesar Chavez Student Center’s Choral Rehearsal Hall.