Like most people who've worked in theater, I have very little sympathy for the audience. From a theater person's point of view, the audience has one job: To sit there and marvel at the glory unfolding on stage. We did the work, by God, so you'd better like it!
But the other night I found myself feeling a bit of audience-compassion. This almost unheralded occasion was a production of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret, by the Apple Hill Playhouse. It's safe to assume that the decidedly suburban crowd got themselves to this lovely barn theater on the implicit promise of being entertained by a musical comedy which avers that life is, after all, a cabaret.
But the cabaret turns out to be the decadent death rattle of the Weimer Republic. The plot features prostitution, alcoholism, homosexuality, abortion, the rise of Nazism -- and, just when you're putting on your coat to leave, the chorus marches its way into the showers at Auschwitz.
Who wouldn't feel bad for the poor audience?
Cabaret is a vivid example of the era when musical comedy was changing into what George Kaufmann called "musical serious." This show has always been trapped in the transition -- the original 1966 version could only suggest the horrors of Nazism that Bob Fosse brought into stark relief in the brilliant 1972 movie. But it took Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, in 1998, to revive and completely rethink the stage version, turning it into the dank, creepy version which Apple Hill, God bless its adventurous heart, is offering.
If I have to see Cabaret and it can't be Fosse's film, this is the version I want to see. (Though I still think the show will always be too unfocused to be truly successful.) At least the grit and grimness are real, not B'way-stylized horror. And when all else fails, there is Kander & Ebb's powerful score, featuring the title song, "Maybe This Time" and "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."
The Apple Hill production challenges not only the audience but the company: Despite a mammoth effort by both production team and performers, and with a nod to Laura Wurzell's inventive choreography, the show never really comes together. The pace is way off; some of the singers are clearly out of their vocal range; and not for a second are you unaware of all the hard work being expended.
But my hat's off to Apple Hill for selecting such a "nontraditional" work, and I hope it will continue to demand so much from itself and its audience.
Cabaret continues through Aug. 18. Apple Hill Playhouse, 275 Manor Road, Delmont. 724-468-5050.