When the musical “Cabaret” premiered in 1966, the horrors of Nazi Germany were still within living memory for millions of survivors. Yet almost 60 years on (and more than 90 years from its Weimar-Era Germany setting), “Cabaret” is no period piece.
Set in Berlin shortly before Hitler’s ascension to power, “Cabaret” is the story of a wild party raging obliviously on the edge of a genocidal abyss.
There’s nothing retro and everything urgent about Porchlight Music Theatre’s exquisitely cast, visually stunning production, running through Feb. 12 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.
Directed by Michael Weber and choreographed by Brenda Didier, the musical — (inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” and the 1951 play “I Am a Camera”) by John Kander (composer), Fred Ebb (lyrics) and Joe Masteroff (book) — lights up the story with 21st century import.
The plot, barreling like a freight train across the stage, centers on Clifford Bradshaw (Gilbert Domally), an aspiring writer from Pittsburgh. His muse is Sally Bowles (Erica Stephan), star of Berlin’s so-seedy-its-glamorous Kit Kat Klub, a pansexual wonderland where Clifford entertains a few old lovers (he keeps running into boys who know him from London’s “Nightingale” club) before Sally moves into his cheap flat.
The driving engine of the Kit Kat is the Emcee (Josh Walker), a menacing, charismatic leader strutting on the knife-edge of joy and oblivion as he presides over the story that unfolds.
Inside the Kit Kat, the Emcee exhorts “life is beautiful.” Tellingly, one of the very first sounds the audience hears comes from outside the club — breaking glass. The early moment —before the first lines or lyrics — is a harbinger of an ominous incident much later in the show and a chilling evocation of the stormfront on the horizon.
The first third of “Cabaret” is filled with glorious cabaret numbers, backed by a terrific live onstage band conducted by music director Linda Madonia. The club’s infamous dancers are a Felliniesque crew resplendent in their scanties. (Costume designer Bill Morey’s flattering, intricate, perfectly tailored lingerie should be available to the masses.) Led by Stephan, songs such as “Don’t Tell Mama” is a cheeky delight; ditto the emphatically sex-positive cross-continential romp “Mein Herr.”
But the mood changes when Clifford’s landlord Fraulein Schneider (Mary Robin Roth) becomes engaged to Herr Shultz (Mark David Kaplan), a Jewish fruit seller. The scene shifts, and a surreal ensemble garbed in gleaming garb of Teutonic gods gradually assembles on stage to deliver “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” The final, astounding operatic verse in this profoundly disturbing nationalistic anthem goes to Fraulein “Fritzie” Kost (Neala Barron), outfitted in a towering silvery headdress evoking a Nazi war eagle, surrounded by booming sycophants ready to do her bidding.
Clifford is the first to see the rising threats clearly. His moment of recognition comes at the engagement party, when “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” returns as a reprise performed not by gods, but by regular German working folk who grow increasingly aggressive as the number builds. In Domally’s subtly expressive face, it’s crystal clear that Clifford has definitely seen this brand of evil before.
Stephan’s Sally Bowles is outstanding, all freewheeling exuberance until the title tune, which becomes a complete emotional meltdown as Sally is forced to reckon with the end of her world in a song that celebrates it as nothing but an endless party.
As for Walker’s Emcee, he embodies the Kit Kat in all its incandescent insularity. His frenzied take on “Money” sizzles and haunts, the menage-a-trois “Two Ladies” is prime, bawdy vaudeville. Walker adds unspoken layers to the imminent threats.
Weber’s supporting cast doesn’t miss a step, either. Mary Robin Roth’s Fraulein Schneider knocks it out of the park, across the oceans and into the stratosphere with one of the most epic renditions of the wise, rueful “What Would You Do” that I’ve heard across 30 years and dozens of productions. Mark David Kaplan radiates a goodness that’ll make you weep for Herr Schultz’s likely fate.
In set designer Angela Weber Miller’s trenchant design, the oncoming train partially obscuring the band is a constant reminder. You can’t look at the Kit Kat Klub — even at its most intoxicating — without being cognizant of what’s coming for them all.