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Crime & Fun-ishment: Penn State Thespians’ ‘Cabaret’ Asks Dire Moral Questions

“WILKOMMEN!” a clownish, baby-powder-pale face contorted with an ironic smile screams into the crowd, the German accent at once clipped and smooth. “Bienvenue, welcome to Cabaret, to Cabaret, to Cabaret!”

Harsh white lights crackle above this figure in jackboots and a leather coat on the otherwise empty stage, and the emcee for the evening continues his cartoonishly European welcome to the audience, bringing out the stone-faced “Cabaret girls.” He has the audience in the palm of his hand, and he relishes in it, clearly enjoying himself as he slides languidly across the stage in a way that both emulates and mocks the classic burlesque style.

The Master of Ceremonies

The opening number to the Penn State Thespians’ production of “Cabaret” is simultaneously fun and a little scary, setting the tone for what’s to come. Audiences go to the theater to watch art and think, yes (and you’ll be doing no shortage of thinking at “Cabaret,” whether you want to or not), but perhaps the most crucial function of any show is to entertain. The emcee — bawdy and confident and oh-so-charming in his cynically casual demeanor — hijacks this expectation, inviting us to look at the performers, to forget our worries, to simply enjoy the show. And we can’t help but enjoy the talented dancing and urbane humor, despite the unsettling, unshakeable feeling that the emcee and his dancers mean us very real harm.

“Cabaret,” directed by Penn State senior Chad Poz and produced by senior Evan Young, tells the story of early-1930s Germany through the eyes of an American novelist Cliff Bradshaw and the Europeans he meets in Berlin, particularly those at the Kit-Kat nightclub (of which the fourth-wall-breaking emcee is also the host).

Early-1930s Germany is, erm, not a good place — which we know, of course, but that only serves to make watching the unfolding drama of “Cabaret” all the more frazzling: Nazism, we know from the hateful grin of the master of ceremonies, is coming, and the audience can do nothing but watch as the dark pallor of fascism creeps from the wings of the stage into the spotlight.

The subtly fascist nightclub of “Cabaret”

“Cabaret” has no shortage of musical numbers that demand exacting range from the performers. Songs include heartfelt soliloquies, hateful nationalist battle hymns, and campy burlesque numbers, and the cast of “Cabaret” rises to the challenge with jaw-dropping talent. This was almost Broadway-tier execution — not a compliment I use lightly.

College theater utilizes student actors, obviously, and due to the fact that college students are still developing their talents, a certain degree of woodenness is to be expected. It’s forgiven in good faith, of course, but expected nonetheless. But I saw no weak performance in “Cabaret.” Each and every part was played with a professional force that proves the Thespians’ ability to live up to their name.

The production, too, contributes to the real-deal-theater feel of this production. Without giving anything away, the lighting and set design play just as much a part in the show’s unfolding nightmare as the performances do. The emcee’s nightclub world, characterized by harsh black and white lighting and a backdrop eerily reminiscent of broken glass (think Kristallnacht), slowly begins to infiltrate the more mundane and standard lighting of the characters’ comparatively polite Berlin. “It’s just politics,” a bureaucratic fascist remarks upon Bradshaw’s moral objection to the infamous armband, and at that revelation, the red of the Nazi flag finally becomes a part of the lighting, solidifying the dread that darts at the periphery of the play and proving the technical skill of the Thespians.

If there is one takeaway from “Cabaret,” a key moral that should compel you to go see the show, is that hate is never “just politics.” Evil laughs and jokes in the face of morality. So do the emcee and his fascist counterparts smile wry, mocking smiles as they do their best to seduce the audience to their hateful cause. “Velcome to Cabaret!” they sing with a wink, hoping their charm will set us against the characters struggling to resist the rising tide of Nazism in Berlin.

Reed Callan and Camryn Powers as Cliff Bradshaw and Fräulein Schneider

“Cabaret” demonstrates, in its mastery of the technical, the directorial, and the thespian, that fascism is seductive. It beckons with a crooked finger and a knowing look of “come hither.” Now more than ever, we must be reminded of hate’s power to overcome what seem like reasonable people, and the Thespians’ “Cabaret” does so with such impeccable proficiency that you might well experience authentic stupefaction for the first time in your life. Sean Terrey, Montana Telman, Gerald Koledin — to name only a few cast members — are all worth seeing in their own right in this show.

You can have this Broadway experience this week, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, March 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. in the Schwab Auditorium, and a matinee will be available Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults, $4.99 for children, and $4.98 for students. Quick note to parents: your discretion for this show is advised with respect to children — sex, alcohol, and fascism all play prominent roles.

The Penn State Thespians have pulled together to create serious art that asks serious questions. But it’s also just really, really entertaining. This one is an emotional roller-coaster on just about every level, folks. Don’t miss it.

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About the Author

Steve Schneible

Recovering Bethlehem, PA native. English & Psych student, PSU SHC class of 2021. Paterno Fellow. Narcissism Hour Showrunner. Kalliope Fiction Coordinator. Earnest and usually good-natured milquetoast. Baby Onward State contributor. Email: [email protected] Moderately amusing Twitter account: @steve_schneibs

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