Berlin comes to Baltimore in Barnstormers' Cabaret

By CATE TURNER | April 11, 2019

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COURTESY OF LAURA NUGENT The Barnstormers put on a production of Cabaret for their 100th Anniversary Spring Musical.

The Barnstormers finished their opening weekend of their 100th anniversary spring musical, Cabaret, in Swirnow Theater. Directed by Max Hunter, the artistic director of The Bridge Production Group, and produced by senior Julia Zimmerman, the show centers around a Berlin cabaret called the Kit Kat Klub and the lives of those involved in it. 

I had already seen the musical before, so I knew to expect exciting, raunchy musical numbers and characters alongside the darker backdrop of a growing Nazi Germany. Luckily though it had been long enough that I forgot how most of the story unfolded, and the Barnstormers pleasantly surprised me with every dramatic moment, bizarre sexual reenactment and new character. 

The aptly named Emcee, aka the Master of Ceremonies, played by junior Frank Guerriero, opened the show in the famously bold first number “Willkommen” (bienvenue, welcome... you know the song) and introduced the audience to the lovely dancers at the Klub. These dancers — with names ranging from Texas to Tietze to Helga — were the closest thing the show had to an ensemble, but that doesn’t mean that they lost their individuality. 

It was hard not to be completely captivated by the entertainers at the Klub, not just because they were wearing lingerie and fake eyebrows, but also because they performed with a wonderfully infectious energy. I truly wish I had enough space here to include the names of all the actors and actresses individually, but I commend the proudly promiscuous dancers at the Klub and their superhuman ability to make eye contact with the audience members while straddling chairs. I couldn’t look away, even though sometimes I felt slightly compelled to. 

Of course, the dancers’ enthusiasm would be in vain without the efforts of both their actual leader, the Emcee, and their de facto one, Sally Bowles (played by senior Sophia Diodati). As the Emcee, Guerriero embodied a flamboyant, confident, often strange persona — the audience never trusted him but was always excited to see him lurking in the shadows while other characters had more serious moments on stage. In an email to The News-Letter, Zimmerman noted, “The show itself does a very good job of bringing a false sense of safety within the confines of the Kit Kat Klub that slowly gets broken down over the course of the show, which is both poetic and pretty accurate.” 

For me Guerriero’s performance as the powerful Emcee epitomized that “false sense of safety” that permeated every moment, especially as he intensified the unease in the Klub.

Diodati, meanwhile, exposed the interiority of the bubbly yet lonely Sally Bowles: She could giggle and flirt like no one else but then broke all of our hearts with her emotionally unstable performance of the final “Cabaret.” Not to mention Diodati’s wildly impressive performance of “Maybe This Time,” which literally gave me goosebumps. The role also held a deeper significance to Diodati which she noted in an email to The News-Letter.

“I will forever be grateful to have been cast in this role knowing that perhaps, for someone, their Sally Bowles will have curly hair and darker skin like mine — black women can lead these narratives too, so let them,” she wrote.

The production of the musical quite obviously contrasted the high-energy, dark and mysterious Kit Kat Klub scenes with those that took place in Fräulein Schneider’s (played by junior Maya Singh Sharkey) boarding house. It is here where the audience can conceptualize the increasing discomfort in the Klub, as well as in Berlin itself.

Bowles moves into the boarding house with the American writer Clifford Bradshaw, played by freshman Zach Galvarro, whom she becomes enamored with after meeting him at the Klub. Herr Schultz (sophomore Keelin Reilly) is also Schneider’s suitor, and the two older characters provide a more genuine, albeit just as sad, contrast to the relationship between Bowles and Bradshaw. I would also like to add that Reilly genuinely convinced me that he was an old man, subtle limp and all. 

It is mostly in the boarding house that we learn about the political backdrop of the story. After Ernst Ludwig (freshman Gabriel Feuerstein-Mendik) — Bradshaw’s German friend — is revealed to be a Nazi, we see the characters themselves unwinding, and their relationships falling apart. And though the second act is meant to be the darker half of the musical, the Barnstormers did a great job of making sure that the audience felt the ominous tone throughout the entire show. 

With lines from Herr Schultz such as “You will be married to a Jew, but also a German” when talking to Schneider and from Bradshaw like “If you’re against all this, you’re for it. Or you might as well be” when scolding Bowles for her complicity in the growth of the Nazi party, the musical struck a very relevant chord with the current issues of immigration and national identity in our country. 

In an email to The News-Letter, Hunter wrote that 

“The artistry of Cabaret is in its humanization of a global movement — the lives and experiences of its characters are used to ground and contextualize a more abstract shift in political and social power,” he wrote. 

Though Hunter acknowledged that the show is designed to resonate with and “elicit real emotional reactions from the Johns Hopkins audiences,” he wanted to make sure to maintain the historical and original honesty of the production. 

“To sanitize this musical does a disservice to the narratives and structure of the show, and risks distancing an audience from the characters and their struggles,” he wrote.

Finally, I would genuinely be amiss if I didn’t mention the orchestra, led by Musical Director Matthew Dohm: Thanks to the setting of the musical, the orchestra had just as noticeable (and, as always, just as important) of a role as the cast members themselves. Their performance during the haunting last scene was perfectly discordant and helped the audience solidify the conclusion that the entire musical was about far more than a cabaret. 

There are so many interesting and relevant aspects of this musical, both in the show itself and in the way that the Barnstormers produced it, that it’s impossible to capture them all (one of them being how gender and sexuality were more fluid in Cabaret than they probably will be in 2030). 

The Barnstormers did a fantastic job of portraying the complexities and emotion in Cabaret, and I was thoroughly impressed with the way they built and performed the incredible dramatics of the legendary musical. Also, a word to the wise: Don’t go to this show with your parents, your teachers or any children. Just don’t. 

The final performances of Cabaret will take place in the Swirnow Theater, from April 12 through April 14. 

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