The answer to this is short and simple: Sally Bowles. Bowles is an English ex-pat who has become a star attraction at the Kit Kat Club, a bastion of frivolity in a city increasingly consumed by angst. As portrayed by Trinity firecracker Rachael Warren, Bowles is a marvel of a character, a cataclysm of opposing, or complementary, impulses: to babble and to obfuscate; to perform and to conceal; to connect and to go it alone. On stage she’s plucky and inscrutable; off, she’s fidgety and vulnerable. The central question around Sally Bowles is whether she is indomitable or merely elusive: is her power to captivate or to ingratiate? In a scene that culminates with Nazi Youth breaking into a triumphant performance of the patriotic anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” our eyes turn to Sally, who is watching them with rapt fascination: their politics may be ugly, but their music is terrific. For the deracinated Sally Bowles, whose only home is in a song, this may be too much to resist. By the end of the show, when Germany’s grim future has been amply foreshadowed, Bowles has returned to the Kit Kat Club. She has lost a lover, aborted her pregnancy, and resolved to live in a doomed country; her final song, “Life is a Cabaret,” is a surrender phrased in the language of defiance. Warren, her voice loud, lusty, and lovely, achingly expresses this ambivalence. It is a thrilling moment of theater because it is a perfect crystallization of a complex character.
If only anything else in the show were as refractive as Sally Bowles; instead, we get dull-edged characterization and rubbed-smooth sentiment. The show is about Clifford Bradshaw (Mauro Hantman), an American writer who comes to Berlin for inspiration but who ends up, prosaically, giving English lessons instead. (Writers tend to make bad main characters: as stand-ins for the authors of shows, who wish to be neither self-aggrandizing nor self-incriminating, they are usually saddled with insipid goodness and passive natures. So it is with Bradshaw: he is a blank, but crisp, sheet of paper.) His lover is (inexplicably) Sally Bowles; his pupil is a Nazi named Ernst (Stephen Thorne); his landlady, the starchy Fraulein Schneider (Phyllis Kay), has a soft spot for his neighbor, a timid Jewish grocer named Herr Shultz (Stephen Berenson); another neighbor, Fraulein Kost (Janice DeClos), entertains young sailors in her apartment. It is not clear what world these characters are supposed to represent, except that of the Musical. Certainly there is nothing in this production to evoke the cultural schizophrenia of the era, the competing voices of trauma and arousal, the physical and spiritual disfigurement that made places like the Kit Kat Club necessary palliatives.
Berlin, I imagine, was a seething, pustular city—hence the makeup and make-believe at the cabaret. But Trinity’s Berlin has been treated with an antiseptic: sure, it’s a little wan, but you’d never know how sick it really was. Only Sally Bowles has the desperate vitality of the plague victim. Without a clearer picture of the city’s disease, the Kit Kat Club is just another saloon, its Emcee just another cross-dresser (although, to be fair, Joe Wilson, Jr. makes a hell of a cross-dresser). Director Curt Columbus has brought a cottony humanism to all of this work with Trinity, but that might not be the right texture for Cabaret, which cries out for a telling less merciful. The show is not without its delights; what it needs is more degradation.