Monday, May 16, 2011


Joy Yandell, Karson St. John
(photo: Daren Scott)
Spoilers Throughout. 

San Diego's excellent Cygnet theatre is presenting a problematic production of Kander and Ebb's classic musical Cabaret.

The show is preceded by a German-language sing-a-long that the director presents (I think) as playful but that made me uncomfortable. This was my first Cabaret with a largely non-Jewish audience, and being surrounded by people cheerfully singing in German in the context of a show about Nazis made the hair stand up on the back of my Jewish neck. Was I reacting reasonably or overreacting? I could make a case for either one. (The non-Jewish friend I went with sang along innocently and happily.)

The choice of a female emcee is intriguing, and Karson St. John is good (though not great) in the role, but the gender switch is undercut in a number of ways. For one example, having men in drag playing the "Two Ladies" feels like a cop-out. In addition, the Emcee's representation of evil oozing into society is played inconsistently, and having Nazi soldiers rather than the Emcee throw the brick that breaks Herr Schultz's window strikes me as a flat-out mistake.

Another problematic directorial decision was to have the "her" of "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" be a pig rather than a gorilla, particularly since the pig is directed to behave as grossly as possible. This heavy-handed, arguably insensitive change took the song from wistfully and ironically satirical to obvious and icky. And having the Emcee put a black bag with a star of David over the pig's head completely ruins the timing and effect of "she wouldn't look Jewish at all."

And why was the Emcee dressed as Charlie Chaplin for that song? As an excuse to wear a Hitler-esque mustache? Why would Hitler be singing that song? Why would Chaplin? Why change the "her" from a gorilla to a pig? The friend I went with suggested that the director was trying to emphasize the insult to Jews, and she may be right, but it seems to me a misreading of the song.

Another problem is presenting Frauline Schneider and Herr Schultz as an almost cartoon couple in the first act; they need to be sympathetic humans. And having Frauline Schneider sing directly to the audience is wrong. She's not at the KitKat club performing; she's at home, singing non-diegetically. (That is, the character does not perceive herself as singing and has no reason to face an audience.)

I am a big fan of director Sean Murray. His Arcadia and A Little Night Music were wonderful, subtle, and sensitive. Because I know his work, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt here. Many people have been blown away by the show, including a friend of mine who is Jewish. But the show left me feeling creeped out in the wrong way.

(First row, slightly to the side, full-price tix, $36 or so.)

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