The Ghetto Cabaret

The Ghetto Cabaret - photo by Jeff BusbyThe stakes are high for the characters of The Ghetto Cabaret, written by Galit Klas and presented by fortyfivedownstairs and Elsternwick’s Kadimah Yiddish Theatre. From the media release: “Any night could be their last performance.” Here, the “Ghetto” intends to be an amalgam of European ghettos during World War II.

The Jewish singers and musicians here refuse to merely wait until assigned to trains bound for a concentration camp. Instead “their fear is transformed into art as they try to create meaning out of the terror and chaos around them.”

I suspect that a goyish upbringing limited my appreciation of the performance. The work featured “Yiddish songs composed in the ghettos that have remained unheard for decades”. Appropriately, there was some effort to bridge the language gap.

Some songs spliced in English verses, or lyrics were projected on a sheet that was most useful for the audience placed at certain angles. At least some of the time though, the mournful, indecipherable songs seemed to be going over similar ground.

Unfortunately, a few individual choices or imperfections combined to make this offering more disorienting than enlightening at times. Whilst a previous instalment of the work related only to WWII’s Jewish Ghettos, this version sought to broaden the scope.

Here our Jewish Ghetto could receive news of the Uighurs in Western China, or American accents advising of how they were watching for the missteps of illegal immigrants. As for how (or why) this communication was happening, or what it actually achieved, well … it was a like watching a Dr Who episode where you’ve missed the start.

Considering the dark themes, it was reasonable to include some levity. Regrettably, almost all instances of this were heavy handed (even up to Sergeant Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes level), including a Weekend at Bernies’ kind of gratingly incongruous segment.

Clearly the assembled musicians and vocalists are talented, but how did the show hold up from a storytelling standpoint? I remember reading the promise: “The Ghetto Cabaret reveals the black humour, courage and wit of a people fighting to survive.” We didn’t quite get this combination, but we did get the odd insight into how black humour and religious devotion could combine.

An elderly man sought to pre-register his death so that he’d be at the top of the list for burial – an attempt to lessen the torment of his soul as it waited in his unburied body. The lingering effect of this scene suggests the promise held by some ideas in The Ghetto Cabaret, and that further distillation of these will give the work greater heft for a wider audience.

The Ghetto Cabaret
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 3 August 2019
Season continues to 18 August 2019
Information and Bookings:

Image: The Ghetto Cabaret – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Jason Whyte