Think of Cabaret. What do you see? A spider-lashed, dark-bobbed Sally Bowles; an androgynous flat-chested Emcee in suspenders; Kit Kat Girls with spilling cleavage and pointed toes. Yes, this is Cabaret, and the Santa Fe Playhouse effortlessly checks each of these things off. But there is more to be mined here; get ready to go deeper.
At the sold-out preview night, the audience was buzzing. Arriving 30 minutes before the start of the show, three-quarters of the guests were already seated. They even cheered the pre-recorded curtain speech. This is a show that people get excited about, and Santa Fe can barely contain itself.
Lee Manship Vignes is our Emcee for the evening, and he introduces us to the Kit Kat Club in Berlin, Germany, as 1929 ticks over to 1930. A shaggy mop of blond hair, a huge, mischievous smile, seduction and irreverence—it's all there. Soon we meet Cliff Bradshaw, here portrayed by 20-year-old Dylan Norman, whose baby face imbues the character with fresh energy. (And that voice! What would velvet sound like if it could sing?) Cliff accompanies new friend Ernst Ludwig (a dynamic John H Reiser) to the club, where Cliff is set upon by dancer Sally Bowles.
Actress Katie Hagan, who plays Bowles, is what you see in the dictionary when you look up "flapper." It's sublime. With a sleek bob, a dark pout and eyes to rival a Margaret Keane painting, she is the consummate good-time girl. (Perhaps a little too good-time: as the plot gets darker, her portrayal lacks some of the nuanced conflict or trepidation we'd like to see in Sally, but it wasn't enough of a concern to detract from the show.)
This is the 1987 revival of the 1966 production; director Vaughn Irving credits the choice to the ’87 version taking a closer look at subtle LGBTQ+ themes. He rejected the 1998 revival, which he thinks favored shock value over depth, he tells SFR in an email. As a result, we are happily given more of Cliff’s singing with a heartfelt “Don’t Go,” and more of his ambiguous sexuality. Norman plays the role with tension coupled with a wide-eyed innocence that feels natural in his hands.
Handmade costumes from veteran designer Cheryl Odom would have stolen the show when the Kit Kat Girls arrive, but the ensemble is so strong that the costumes are there to do them justice. For some, a role as a Kit Kat Girl may be a consolation prize when they shoot for Sally Bowles, but it's hard to imagine not wanting to be in this squad. They have a camaraderie that evokes modern burlesque—they know we're ogling them, but they're in control and ogling us right back. Christine Smith, Alexis Taylor, Terri Scullin, Marisa Xochtl Jimenez and Myriah Duda (the last of whom is a rising high school senior at New Mexico School for the Arts—and she's a hell of a gorilla!) are all remarkable.
Choreography from Patrick MacDonald doesn't simply accompany the music; it furthers the plot. Instrumental numbers with the Kit Kat Girls and the Klub Waiters (nimble Tristan Van Cleave and jaw-dropping CJ Rodrigues) are not obligatory afterthoughts to make time for costume changes. The moves are unique, nodding to important choreographers but not imitating. And the singing doesn't suffer for the weavings and leanings of the tight dances—there is no mud to be heard here. That we particularly noticed one spot where harmonies went a little off (the first rendition of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me") means that the rest just flowed like honey—even while hanging upside-down, as exhibited by the Emcee.
So, the club is all well and good. As ever, though, the meat of this production is in the boarding house.
Ann Roylance, Santa Fe's favorite spritely grandmother figure, is Fräulein Schneider, who rents rooms to various Berliners. One of these renters is Herr Schultz (Ken Bordner), an older Jewish man who owns a grocery store. Schneider and Schultz fall in charming love over gifts of produce and sing lovely little songs together, feet dancing along, as they celebrate their late-in-life love and subsequent engagement.
Roylance's Schneider starts the show as a truly adorable and self-sufficient spinster, but a cloud passes over her face when she learns the gravity of her situation: a gentile woman engaged to marry a Jewish man, with the Nazis poised to take power. Bordner's buoyant optimism becomes foreboding dismissal of current events.
Things go bad. Things always go bad. The love between Schneider and Schultz is the first casualty. In the end, when leaving this production, while the Kit Kat Klub is memorable, we were overwhelmingly haunted by Roylance's small frame singing the brave yet ultimately helpless number, "What Would You Do?" Hearts break when she exits exhausted, peeping: "I regret everything."
With a truly strong cast, an onstage six-piece band (nod to Michael Blake Oldham, who built the set, made the props, commands the orchestra along with musical director Judson Seely, and then puts down his trombone to play a wordless but vital Max) and relevance that waffles between tiresome and tireless, this Cabaret is essential viewing. Bleibe, reste, stay.
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays June 27-Aug. 5;
2 pm Sundays July 30 and Aug. 6. $15-$25.
Santa Fe Playhouse,
142 E De Vargas St.,