As a self-confessed fan of musicals, I did not hesitate to book a ticket and spread the word when I found out local production company Pan Productions was putting on, in their own words, ‘one of the icons of musical theatre’, Kander & Ebb’s multi-award wining Cabaret at KLPAC’s Pentas 2. It's not often that Malaysians get to watch Broadway musicals and a local production is, to my limited knowledge, unprecedented. My hope, excitement and expectations were sky-high.
Berlin was at this time a hotbed of artistic experimentation, political conflict, social upheaval, cultural decadence and unrestrained hedonism, embodied in Cabaret by the denizens and patrons of the seedy Kit Kat Klub, ominously presided by the Master of Ceremonies, played in this production by Peter Ong.
From the moment the Emcee sings the opening line ‘Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome’, you knew this production meant business. Mr. Ong as the Emcee maintained superb confidence and a presence unmatched by anyone else in the cast. His role is probably the show's most challenging; the Emcee is an omnipresent personality who is host, tease, commentator, comedian, oppressor, victim and storyteller—a chameleon in appearance and character. Mr. Ong, who is also co-executive producer, deftly, deliciously and magnificently showcased the ease, aplomb and showmanship that only a stage vet could possess (not to mention an impressive faux German accent). He made the role his own with flair and sang with a voice that was both controlled in its pacing and powerful in its reach—I dare say his performance alone would have justified the ticket price. His write-up in the programme reveals his impressive background as an operatic singer. Ah, no wonder!
English novelist Clifford Bradshaw, played by Peter Davis, comes to Berlin ‘looking for something to write about’. Mr. Davis’s charm, good looks, affable personality and genuine English accent helped him portray Clifford when the character was naïve and shy, but he was less believable when confrontational or enraged. Clifford soon meets (and falls for) a singer in the Kat Kat club, Sally Bowles, played by Stephanie van Driesen. Ms. van Driesen’s Sally was full of confidence and bravura, although there were moments she went a tad over-the-top in an already over-the-top role. Her polished singing and dancing were delightful in the ensemble numbers, but she was truly outstanding when she sang her solos with the potent mix of guile, bitterness, fear and ambition her character embodied.
Near the club, Clifford takes lodging in a room for rent offered by Fräulein Schneider, played by Zalina Lee, who, despite playing a hardened matron with none of the sexy costumes or dance moves enjoyed by the other female characters, managed to steal the show every time she was on stage. Her depth of characterisation and beautiful voice were without a doubt one of the show’s great pleasures.
Bernie Chan as Fräulein Kost, another of Fraulein Schneider’s lodgers, was assured as the comical call girl who performs her ‘duty to her country’ by inviting sailors in for some TLC. Alizakri Alias (also co-exec producer) as Herr Schultz, played the role of Schneider’s Jewish love interest with great charm and ease, offering exotic fruits from his store as gifts to her instead of flowers or perfume. They duet touchingly upon their engagement, and a party is hosted to celebrate.
As Sally moves, or rather, forces herself in to Clifford’s room, he finds employment by offering English lessons while struggling to write. His first student is Ernst Ludwig, a German he met on the train to Berlin, who offers him supplementary income by ferrying mysterious briefcases between Berlin to Paris. Aaron Khaled showed subtlely and charisma as Ernst, holding up his faux German accent well (at least most of the time).
At the engagement party, we find out that Ernst is in fact a Nazi officer, and he warns Schneider as a long-time friend that her marriage to a Jew will invite trouble. As she’s made to reconsider, things start to seem less than jolly, as we have always suspected. The singing of the anthem ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’, closing the first act with the Emcee as a Nazi officer ominously hovering above the stage was one of the production’s brilliant strokes of genius.
The Kit Kat club’s gorgeous dancers Judimar Hernandez, Sabrina Hassan, Suhaili Micheline, Hunny Madu, Davina Goh, Sarah Low, Alfred Choo and Paul Wong were sexy and fantastically energetic when dancing, but the choreography was messy at times, with some dancers bumping into others and lacking synchronisation.
Unfortunately, the energy displayed in the first act seemed to have dissipated a little after the intermission. The climax, when Clifford confronts Ernst and pleads to Sally to leave with him to the safety of England, seemed to lack immediacy or real tension. For one, the fighting and slapping seemed practically half-hearted compared to the earlier forceful dance moves. Thankfully, the audience had a treat when Ms. van Driesen sang the title song, declaring her staunch refusal to leave Berlin or her life as a showgirl with a show-stopping rendition which left us thunderously applauding.
Overall, this production’s creative team (most are familiar names in Malaysian theatre) took many notes from Sam Mendes’s 1996 famous production, starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee. The clever set by Melissa Teoh and dazzling costumes by Dominique Devorsine were impressive and evocative, but special mention goes to lighting by Lim Ang Swee, which was beautifully effective. Musical director Nish Tham’s team of young musicians were a small but tight band, confidently playing John Kander’s heady score.
Top kudos must of course go to Nell Ng, the artistic director of Pan Productions who no doubt shed buckets of blood, sweat and tears to bring this show to our shores. It was her admirable drive which brought together this dazzling collection of talents that made Cabaret a reality, and she showed skill and courage as Director and Choreographer of this challenging musical which, despite its exuberance, belies darker themes and offers veiled commentary on human behaviour.
Sally and others at the Kit Kat Klub chose to turn a blind eye to changes in their wider society, preferring to see life as something to be enjoyed endlessly and politics more of a nuisance. Yet, as totalitarianism swept across Germany, no one was spared from the tide, and Berlin’s hedonists found out too late when the music stopped playing. Ultimately, the Nazis sent to concentration camps scores of intellectuals, artists, singers, dancers and performers when they came to power.
This production did tone down the explicity and raunchiness of Mendez’s revival but it still managed to be a timely reminder that if we sit back, shop at the mall, eat at posh joints, work at the office and (ahem) go to the theatre, in wilful oblivion to political changes and in silence to the daily prejudice and authoritarianism we face, it may soon come to pass that we'll be held at ransom when things in the country are too far gone to save.
While Cabaret’s limited run has ended, I eagerly look forward to the next show by Pan Productions. Bravo Nell Ng and co, and long live Malaysian arts!