Decadence and drama in the shadow of Nazism
Eliza Klein plays showgirl Frenchie, with Chris Owen as sailor Victor in Main Street Arts’ <i>Cabaret</i>.

Decadence and drama in the shadow of Nazism

‘Cabaret,’ from Main Street Arts, provides a complex take on a Germany on the cusp of fascism

BELLOWS FALLS — David Stern's production of the classic musical Cabaret, from Main Street Arts, has all the ingredients of a hit: great book and lyrics, gifted actors in fabulous costumes, striking dance numbers, and a brilliant set.

The shadow of Nazism falling over Berlin in the early 1930s injects dark poignance and contemporary relevance into a plot that centers on the brassy, talented, and scandalous Sally Bowles.

Aidan Flower Des Jardins, an up-and-coming alumna of New England Youth Theatre known to local audiences for her stellar performances in The Secret Garden and Mary Poppins, perfectly inhabits this role. She has the looks, the pipes, and the acting chops to pull it off.

Des Jardins realizes that her character's proclivity for gin, endless parties, and casual sex won't appeal to everyone.

“Sally Bowles makes some choices in her life that I'm sure many audience members will disagree with,” she says. “If I've done my job right, I hope they will see how, like all of us, she is trying to do her best during hard times, and how easy it is to stay in your comfort zone and self destruct.”

Stern's gift for casting is also apparent in his choice of Gavy Kessler as the Emcee. Kessler, a veteran actor and director of The Putney School's theater program, captures the sleazy, cynical, and coarsely funny essence of a character he has long sought to play.

“It is a role that I have dreamt of playing since seeing Alan Cumming perform it on Broadway when I was in my early 20s. Getting to put my spin on this iconic role is an incredible honor,” he says.

“Audiences may be surprised by how complex the show is - it is fun and sexy, but it is also dark and dramatic,” Kessler adds. “We keep taking you back and forth from fantasy to reality, and sometimes the lines get very blurry.”

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As racy nightclub performers, the Kit Kat girls strut their stuff with remarkable precision. Choreographers Annesa Hartman and Shoshana Bass, who also play two of the club's showgirls, have created remarkable dance numbers powered by Music Director Ken Olssen's thumping interpretations of the show's famous songs, including “Willkommen,” “Don't Tell Mama,” and the extravagantly raunchy “Money.”

Olsson's contribution to this and previous MSA musicals can't be overestimated. To watch him simultaneously accompany on keyboard, conduct the orchestra, and direct the singers is to see a master in action.

Among the challenges he faced in this show he cites the German language: “For actors who are not familiar with German, it can be challenging to pronounce it, let alone having to memorize it,” he says.

Other notables in the cast include Victor Brandt as the undercover Nazi Ernst Ludwig, Jeanie Levesque as Fräulein Schneider, and Mark Tullgren as Herr Schultz. The heartbreaking autumn romance between the aging landlady and the old fruit merchant is beautifully realized by Levesque and Tullgren. And Heather Martell delivers a superb performance as the insouciant prostitute Fräulein Kost.

As is typical of Stern's astonishing sets, this one expands, contracts, rotates, and collapses like a life-sized pop-up card. His ingenious design and careful execution transform the Kit Kat Club into a train carriage, a Berlin street, a fruit shop, and rooms in a boarding house. Led by Technical Director Chip O'Brien, MSA's talented set builders labored for hundreds of hours to turn Stern's ambitious plans into a dazzling reality.

Costumier Sandy Klein focussed her remarkable design and fabrication skills on the task of creating historically accurate clothing. Her creativity is most evident in the daring costumes worn by showgirls in a seedy nightclub of the era.

But Klein is quick to share credit with the actors themselves: “Each actor in this show took part in the creation of the look of their character; it brings a special authenticity when an actor has buy-in with the clothing they wear,” she says.

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Cabaret, first performed in 1966, features music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff. It is based on Christopher Isherwood's experiences as a British writer living Germany in the early 1930s, the subject of his autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin. Capably played by Sean Edward Roberts, the character of Clifford Bradshaw represents the author. Roberts was last seen on the MSA stage in the title role of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2018.

As the bisexual writer who falls in love with the incandescent Bowles and decries the metastasizing Nazi hatred of Jews, the Clifford Bradshaw character is key to the plot and its message.

While Cabaret accurately portrays the decadence of the last years of the Weimar Republic, it doesn't touch on the intellectual and artistic richness of this chaotic period in German history.

With Hitler's rise to power in 1933, violent Nazi antisemitism drove hundreds of brilliant artists, musicians, filmmakers and scientists - including Albert Einstein - to the United States, enriching our cultural life and advancing American scholarship and science.

While it's hard to avoid the disturbing parallels between Hitler's rise in 1930s Germany and today's populist demagogues spouting hate and fomenting intolerance, there's much more to this show than politics. Its powerful drama, bawdy humor, and dance and song set to memorable music offer a delicious escape from our anxiety-ridden world.

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