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October 10, 2014

A CABARET That That Would Make Hal and Sam Blush

Faithful readers may recall that last week, in my survey of 11 shows in seven states in 11 days, I promised a much more detailed report on one of them: CABARET, as directed by Dale Gutzman.

I first discovered Gutzman on September 2, 1990 during my rainbow tour of ballparks: Chicago Cubs on Saturday afternoon; Chicago White Sox on Monday evening and, sandwiched in between, a Sunday matinee with the Milwaukee Brewers. After that game, I checked an alternative weekly in hopes of finding a show to see on a Sunday night, and found a production of DR. FAUSTUS at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre directed by this unknown-to-me Dale Gutzman.

Once again I learned that great theater can crop up anywhere. Gutzman’s production turned out to be thrilling, sensational and evocative. Nearly a quarter century later, I can still envision some of its most vivid images. So when I knew I was heading to the Midwest, my first order of business was to see what Gutzman was up to.

Although I’ve seen CABARET 16 times in a dozen different productions, my history with the Tony-winning masterpiece long predates my first visit. I read it when it was called WELCOME TO BERLIN and found Joe Masteroff’s book and Fred Ebb’s lyrics so strong that I put money into Hal Prince’s original production. I saw the show’s third-ever performance in Boston when it was in three acts – when the waiters’ “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” ended Act One.

Alas, that first act by Boston standards was all I was able to see of Gutzman’s CABARET. The show wouldn’t open until the Wednesday after I was gone, and the best Gutzman could do was accommodate me at a rehearsal which I’d fit in among my other theatrical obligations. But a third of it was enough to make me thrilled that I made the trip – and frustrated that I couldn’t see the rest of the another innovative Gutzman production.

His company is called Off The Wall Theatre which, as you’ll see, is apt for the type of work he does. He now has a permanent home on East Wells Street, a terrific location, for this storefront theater is directly across the street from Milwaukee Rep and the venerable The Pabst Theatre. I DO hope that patrons from those two more glamorous playhouses are noticing this little place across the street and are daring to venture inside.

Granted, some theatergoers would have been immediately frightened once they entered this CABARET, for an enormous drag queen was there awaiting them to flirt shamelessly. He couldn’t remotely pass as a woman, but gave the impression that he didn’t much care if he did or didn’t. Later he showed up as one of the “Two Ladies” with a genuine woman; thus, both boobs and moobs were proudly on display.

He wasn’t the only drag queen. J.F. Preisz played Fraulein Kost as a man too who didn’t try to fool anyone that he was female. The sailors who paraded into his room undoubtedly knew in advance that they’d be making it with a man. This allowed Marilyn White’s Fraulein Schneider to express greater outrage and anxiety; prostitution is bad enough in her home, but male prostitution?

“Leave your troubles outside,” The Emcee insisted while literally showing us the location of the exit just in case anyone did already have cold feet in this hot club. As he introduced The Cabaret Girls, he gave each a kiss on the cheek; as he introduced The Cabaret Boys, he gave each a kiss on the mouth.

My buddy Bert Silverberg has astutely noted that “Everybody used to play the Emcee exactly the way Joel Grey did, but now everyone does it the way Alan Cumming does.” Actually. Jeremy C. Welter managed to be his own man, hissing out lyrics through a missing front tooth. It was a nice way of showing the lack of concern that Max, the Kit Kat Klub owner, had in what he offered for entertainment. He knew that his patrons were more interested in hooking up with men and women. In fact, he tried to set me up with someone before the show began.

Hanging on the wall was a little marionette made to look like Hitler. Remember, CABARET begins in 1929 when the future Fuhrer was a political wannabe who had never received as much as seven per cent of the vote in three tries at elective office; thus The Emcee gleefully mocked this utter failure. I didn’t need to see all of Gutzman’s production to know that his attitude would change by show’s end.

When Laura Monagle sang “Mama thinks I’m living in a convent,” two men emerged in nun’s costumes and became her back-up dancers. When she sang “Mama thinks I’m on a tour of Europe with a couple of my school chums,” out came The Cabaret Girls, each and every one in virginal Catholic schoolgirls uniforms. Everyone carried a large lollipop; as Sally sang, each put her confection in front of her vagina. Next The Cabaret Boys knelt in front of each and licked the lollipop at the point where the song reached the lyric “Just leave well enough alone” – but which the Girls sang as “Just leave well enough Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Lone.” Gutzman included “Mein Herr” as well. Here The Cabaret Boys, S&M-masked and wearing leather dog-paws, were on all fours and ridden by The Cabaret Girls. They drove them forward, as the lyric goes, “inch by inch, step by step.”

Some of you may already have heard me talk about this on the podcast I do most every week at Then you know that my colleague Michael Portantiere was utterly appalled and felt these choices unspeakably vulgar. So may you. I was impressed because they showed that Gutzman thinks about every lyric and seeks inspiration in each.

Michael was so outraged that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the two male nuns turned around, showed us they were naked from the waist down and then, while executing Gutzman and Kristin Pagenkopf’s choreography, bent over so far that the stage lights shone on, as the expression goes, where the sun don’t shine. I mean, we’ve all seen many an on-stage naked gluteus maximus, but never before have I ever seen in any production its epicenter (and from a front row seat, yet, that couldn’t have been two feet away from the flesh).

All right, you might think these are gimmicks and cheap ones at that – but I defy you not to be impressed with the way Gutzman handled Clifford Bradshaw, who’s always been CABARET’s poor relation.

Think about it. The original Broadway productions and the 1998 revival have resulted in Tony wins for Sally Bowles, Herr Schultz, two for The Emcee and hell, even one for Fraulein Kost. While no Fraulein Schneider has ever taken home the trophy, all four Broadway actresses have received nominations for portraying her. And while we’re at it, let’s add an Oscar for Sally and The Emcee.

But any actor assigned Cliff has never got beans. Were directors Hal Prince and Sam Mendes, each of whom helmed two Broadway productions, at fault in making the character too much of a camera (read: inanimate object)?

Gutzman certainly didn’t. He took to heart that Cliff comes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Now what do you think it was like to grow up gay in that comparatively small town back in the ‘20s, which probably weren’t roaring there? Gutzman made us think about it by having Claudio Perrone, Jr. show Cliff’s non-stop sexual agony. He wouldn’t allow himself to BE himself even here, the most sexually free place he’d ever encountered. Yes, Cliff was constantly tempted, but no, he never dared give in – at least in as much of the show I saw.

What anguish was on Perrone’s face! When Sally burst into his room, Cliff had more conflicted feelings. He liked that he’d finally have the chance to show himself and the world that he was A Man – which unfortunately was only then defined as heterosexual.

But Cliff’s face also showed the torment from wondering if he’d be able to perform in a heterosexual capacity. On a trip where I would also see WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, I was seeing a man in the same precarious situation.

How close did he come to cracking? Alas, I’ll never know. But if someone out there did catch Dale Gutzman’s CABARET during its September 17-28 run, DO tell me what I missed.

         — Peter Filichia

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