What good is sitting alone in your room? Come to the Cabaret…
So sings Sally Bowles in the Kander & Ebb musical, Cabaret, a show which is highly regarded for its confrontation with the horror of Nazi Germany. Other musicals deal with the same topic, but in wildly different ways: The Captain in The Sound Of Music is implacably opposed to the Nazis and leads his family to climb every mountain to escape them; The Producers sees the worst show in history, a musical about Hitler, become a surprise hit. There are others, but these musicals most often touch the imagination evocatively about Hitler’s Germany.
But none of them really encapsulates the horror felt by the Jewish people in the years after Hitler attained power in Germany: yes, Herr Schultz in Cabaret suffers, but it is Sally Bowles who is most remembered there; you remember th children and the Nuns from Sound of Music; and Hitler is reduced to a camp figure of satirical fun in The Producers. The suffering of the average Jew is not a major theme in popular musicals, although there are great cult musicals which take on the issue: The Grand Tour, for instance.
Now playing at the Laurie Beechman Theatre is a remarkable piece of musical theatre, Club Gelbe Stern, written by Alexis Fishman and James Miller, and directed by Sharone Havely. It delves directly into the fear and horror of being Jewish and talented just as the Swatsika began its control of German breath. Through song, chutzpah, and gritty, poignant narrative, Club Gelbe Stern weaves a hard-hitting tapestry: sex, joy, heart-break, grim reality, defiance and, ultimately, hope.
The setting and mode of presentation (terrific scenic design from Jeffrey T Perri Jr and moody, smoky lighting from David Goldstein) lures you into thinking that this is a one woman cabaret, but to judge it thus is to wholly fail to appreciate what the creatives have achieved here. This is a chamber musical, gutsy and polished, which riffs on the cabaret form but which is actually superbly crafted storytelling, through and with music. Stylishly directed, it relies for its efficacy on the contribution of every musician and character, including those who don’t appear, but are perfectly defined by how they are discussed.
The auditorium has been made to resemble the kind of 1930s underground German cabaret venue the Kit Kat Klub represents in Cabaret: sleazy, smoky, sexy, soulful, and graced with a resident siren who can sing you to orgasm and leave your soul feeling as though her fishnet stockings will be imprinted on it for life. You can tell it is that kind of place before the performance begins.
When proceedings start, it seems a little odd. The cabaret star, Erika Stern, arrives, late and huffing. She touches base at her light-bulb shrouded make-up stand and reads a private letter. The awkward pianist, Otto the Gay Geek, vamps and introduces the star…then, he does it a second time, when she fails to appear. Panic seems a heartbeat away.
Finally, she makes the stage, taking a random sip of something from the glass of a patron (which must make for a vocal surprise each night!) and launches into “Lola”. During this and the next ten minutes or so, the performance seems off, strained, diction is unclear, focus is fuzzy. So this is a performer less third-rate than Sally Bowles was ever intended to be?
But, no, that’s not it. Actually, it is entirely the reverse.
It takes real control, superb effort to produce “off” musicality in a way which is entirely convincing, but that is precisely what Fishman does here. The first section of the piece has Erika reeling from what she has read in the letter, but the drama works best if that is not clear, if the gnawing anxiety slowly works its way out from her spirit and then engulfs her, causing her to react to the situation, and to let loose the best way she knows – with vocal glory and virtuoso venom.
Fishman pulls all of this off quite magnificently. The moment when you realise that she has been carefully showing what has happened to Erika by subtly sabotaging her performance skills is as surprising and powerful as, say, the moment Ulla belts in The Producers, or the birthday cake scene in Next To Normal. Powerful, theatrical, and memorable.
The tale Erika reveals concerns duplicitous and felicitous men, good and bad lovers, engagement rings, cancelled contracts, and a realisation that fleeing the inevitable power of the Nazis is truly a life or death matter. The details are best left to Erika’s telling, because Fishman’s performance is so multi-layered, acute with pain and grace, that it is not likely my retelling could be so faultless, so intense, so wonderful.
It’s not at all a gloomy piece, for all that it digs into deep, dark terrain. This ditty, sung to Bizet’s Habanero (from Carmen) demonstrates the kind of edgy humour on offer:
If your phone is out of order
if your bathtub springs a leak
if inflation rises daily
if your tax bill makes you weak
if your dog pisses on the carpet
if your wife is a lousy lay
if your kids eat all the pastry if the Prince of Wales is gay
Go blame the Jews go blame the Jews
The Jews are guilty and it’s not news
You don’t need brains to read the clues
The guilty party always is the Jews
So blame the Jews if we have flaws
it’s not our fault because the Jew’s the cause
for all our flaws oh it’s a shame
but whatever’s wrong the Jew’s to blame.
Another, from a different song, illustrates the satirical, political bent of much of the material:
Adolf thinks a man should marry you’ve got to face the facts
“every German man who’s single has to pay an extra tax!”
But he himself’s a bachelor, strange you must confess
No one knows the reason but it isn’t hard to guess.
The song choices are remarkably effective, and many of them are from the period in which events are set. The final number, If I Leave You, is an extraordinarily beautiful torch song, written and arranged by Heath Saunders (the original Otto) It will linger with you long after you leave the theatre.
Fishman has a gloriously flexible voice, buttery and velvet in tone, but capable of harsh, brassy defiance as well. She sounds like Ethel Merman and Barbra Streisand have somehow graced her DNA – warm, ebullient, bold.
But this performance is not just about singing. Fishman is entirely at ease with the character, and can extemporise as the audience requires, making the performance flutter with spontaneity. The dramatic core of the narrative is beautifully judged, whether it be a tale of racist vengeance told atop a working bar (with liquor and waitstaff within plucking distance) or the surprise discovery of a Nazi flag in an unexpected location.
It helps that she looks sensational, her feminine wiles resolutely on display.
Fishman has first rate musical assistance from Brian Russell Carey on piano (he plays Otto too), Giuseppe Fusco (Woodwind) and Steve Millhouse (Bass), all of whom play exceptionally well, and some of whom sing to great effect too.
If there is a defect here, and I am not sure there really is, it may be that the piece is confined to only one Act. One wonders how much more shocking and satisfying the experience might be if there was a first Act where Erika was unrestrained, enjoying herself, singing her usual set without an inkling of the letter to come. Certainly, it would be welcome to see Fishman in unrestrained as-it-was Weimar mode.
Club Gelbe Stern is an important and hugely satisfying piece of dramatic musical theatre. Everyone should see it – because it speaks, in an entirely accessible and entertaining way, about one of those times that Humanity simply never wants history to repeat. And despite its honesty and rawness, it is rambunctiously hopeful.
If you are in New York, do anything to see it. If you are in London, pray that the Chocolate Menier will transfer it.