When the musical Cabaret premiered in 1966, the horrors of Nazi Germany were still in the living memory of millions of survivors. Still, almost 60 years later (more than his 90 since set in Weimar-era Germany), “Cabaret” is not a dated production.
Set in Berlin shortly before Hitler came to power, “Cabaret” tells the story of a wild party unwittingly rampaging on the edge of the abyss of genocide.
Running through February 12 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, the exquisite cast and visually stunning production of the Porchlight Music Theater is nothing retro, everything is urgent.
Directed by Michael Weber, choreographed by Brenda Didier, Jon Kander (composer), Fred Ebb (lyricist), Joe Masteroff (book) — illuminating the story with 21st century imports.
The plot is centered around Clifford Bradshaw (Gilbert Demary), an aspiring writer from Pittsburgh, who runs the stage like a freight train. His muse is Sally Bowles (Erika Stefan), the star of Berlin’s very seedy and glamorous Kit Kat Club, a pansexual wonderland where Clifford hosts some old lovers (he’s London’s “Nightingale”). He runs into a boy who knows him at the club). before Sally moves into a cheap apartment.
The driving force behind KitKat is the host (Josh Walker). The host (Josh Walker) presides over the unfolding story, a charismatic leader who menacs the knife-edge of joy and oblivion.
In KitKat, the host recommends that “life is beautiful.” Needless to say, one of the first sounds his audience hears is coming from outside the club. It’s the sound of breaking glass. The early moments before the first lines and lyrics are a harbinger of ominous events much later in the show, a chilling evocation of a storm front on the horizon.
The first third of ‘Cabaret’ is filled with glorious cabaret numbers backed by an amazing live onstage band conducted by Musical Director Linda Madonia. The club’s notorious dancers are the poorly-bodied and flamboyant Felinisk crew. (Costume designer Bill Morey’s flattering, intricate, impeccably tailored lingerie should be available to the masses. So is the staunchly sex-positive transcontinental rant “Mein Herr.” .
But things change when Clifford’s landlord, Fraulein Schneider (Mary Robin Ross), becomes engaged to Jewish fruit vendor Mr. Schultz (Mark David Kaplan). The scene changes, and a surreal ensemble in the shimmering garb of the Teutonic gods gradually gathers on stage to deliver “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” The final amazing operatic verse of this deeply disturbing nationalist anthem goes to Fraulein “Frizier” Kost (Neela Baron). He wears a towering silver headdress reminiscent of a Nazi war eagle and is surrounded by a lively chatter ready to do her bidding.
Clifford is the first to see the growing threat clearly. The moment of his recognition comes at an engagement party, where “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” returns as a reprise not by God, but by ordinary German workers who become increasingly aggressive as their numbers grow. It’s clear from Domally’s subtle look that Clifford has seen this brand of evil before.
Stefan’s Sally Bowles stands out, being a free-spirited frenzy all the way up to the title track, complete with a song that Sally is forced to consider the end of the world in a song that celebrates nothing more than a never-ending party. It’s going to be an emotional meltdown.
As for Walker’s host, he embodies KitKat’s heated aloofness. His frenetic take on “Money” sizzles and is unforgettable. Walker adds a layer of implied to the immediate threat.
Weber’s supporting cast doesn’t take a step either. Mary Robin Ross’ Fraulein Schneider, in one of her most epic renditions of the wise and pathetic “What Does You Do” I’ve heard in dozens of productions over her 30 years, leaves the park. Knock out across the ocean into the stratosphere. Mark David Kaplan radiates crying goodness at Mr. Schultz’s probable fate.
In set designer Angela Weber Miller’s novel design, the oncoming train partially obscuring the band is a constant reminder. You can’t see the Kit Kat Club. You can’t help but recognize what happens to all of them, even in the most intoxicating states.