Review: CABARET at Theatre at the Center

Review: CABARET at Theatre at the Center

Pictured: Craig Spidle and Iris Lieberman. Photo by Guy Rhodes.
By Abigail Trabue

“Suppose you’re one frightened voice
Being told what the choice must be
Go on; tell me
I will listen
What would you do?
If you were me?”

Fräulein Schneider’s question has played out over and over in my head since leaving Theatre at the Center’s production of CABARET Sunday night. What would I do? What should we do? What parallels can we draw between our world today and the Germany of 1930? And if we can draw parallels, what should we do? Run? Get lost in the world of the Kit Kat Klub? Booze? Drugs? Turn a blind eye? Hopelessly accept? Or maybe we resist?

CABARET, with music by Fred Ebb, lyrics by John Kander, and a book by Joe Masteroff, revolutionized Broadway and solidified Director Hal Prince’s place in the American Musical Theater when it premiered in 1966. Prince has bee quoted as saying CABARET freed him and changed his mind about musicals. Showing him the genre’s power to “tell stories in a fragmented fashion and use theater as metaphor.”

With an Emcee (Sean Fortunato) as a metaphor for Germany and National Socialism, CABARET thrusts us into the world of Berlin just three years before Adolf Hitler would be appointed National Chancellor of Germany. We are introduced to the Kit Kat Klub, the toast of Mayfair Sally Bowles (Danni Smith), and Cliff Bradshaw (Patrick Tierney), a young American writer looking for inspiration. Sally and Cliff’s worlds collide, as around them what many think could never come to pass starts to look more and more like Nazi Germany.

In Iris Lieberman (Fräulein Schneider) and Craig Spidle (Herr Schultz) we have two performances that will break your heart in a way that leaves you feeling helpless and struggling to process the ignorant prejudice that destroys both their lives. The anger and stomach-sickening reaction I had to Ernest (in a solid performance by Christopher Davis) at the end of Act 1 left me unsettled during all of intermission. How does one justify such hatred and blindly follow a party who’s propaganda advocates for a master race and antisemitism? And while I’ve seen several productions of CABARET, this is the first time I’ve seen a production where Schneider and Schultz’s story overpowers everything else. Perhaps I feel this way because of the worries I have on my heart? I’m sure that’s some of it, but I don’t think it’s the only reason.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Linda Fortunato, Smith, Tierney and Sean Fortunato shine in their own respects, but they, like the Kit Kat Klub, never feel as dirty or as urgent as they should. The set is safe, the costumes are safe, the world is safe. But they aren’t in a safe world, are they? For most of Act 1, I kept looking for an energy that just wasn’t there. It’s a fine line between making a character choice to appear disinterested, toss away gestures, and move through choreography languidly, and coming across as an actor who doesn’t care about their work on stage. For a few actors, unfortunately, they often looked the latter, and I’m sure that’s not what they were going for.

However, vocally the cast is strong. Smith and Fortunato possess powerhouse voices that don’t skip a beat, and Adam Fane (Bobby/Sailor) was stunning and unnerving in “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

CABARET will not leave you feeling good about life, as the couple sitting next to me noted as they left the theater. But you shouldn’t shy away from this production. It is worth it for the performances and story Lieberman and Spidel turn in.

CABARET runs through June 4th. For more information visit


About author

Abigail Trabue

Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue