For a 50-year-old well-worn American theater warhorse, the current Roundabout Theater’s tour of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” is especially chilling.
And the scariest words to be uttered all evening? “No worries. It’s only fiction.”
Based on Christopher Isherwood’s memoirs “The Berlin Stories,” Cabaret captures the wanton burlesque of 1930s Berlin nightlife and mixes it up with a story of innocents swept up in the rise of Nazi intolerance. Caught in this sea of change are an American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley), Kit Kat Klub star Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin), rooming house matron Fraulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray) and her Jewish would-be mate Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson) – all performing as puppets of themselves and for a creepy Master of Ceremonies (Jon Peterson).
There are two essential ingredients to a successful production of Cabaret – sex and menace. And this production has both. Inside the Kit Kat Klub the girls (and boys) are beautiful, dressed to seduce their clientele into a perfectly marvelous world. But it’s a world that exists only inside its four walls – and possibly in your own denial. Outside, there is an invading threat ready to turn illusions to dust and snap-on the overhead light. When these worlds collide the nightmare becomes real and difficult choices must be made.
Let’s face facts, it is the outrageous theatricality of the nightclub scenes in Cabaret that grabs the audience’s attention and gets the temperature to rise. But to get the full impact of the piece the artifice must be balanced with the growing horror of what is happening outside the Klub.
As directed by BT McNicholl (recreating Rob Marshall’s Broadway work), this production of Cabaret gets it just right packing the emotional punch as it entertains.
Author Joe Masteroff created the character of the Emcee as a grinning, ghostly and ghastly Puck, presaging an evil of unspeakable horror – as he welcomes and seduces you into a waking nightmare. Peterson is perfectly smarmy as this “host from hell” but perhaps missing a tad of the scary and the dangerous we have grown to expect from the role. Peterson completely engages as he expertly slides between showman, con man and chanteuse. His stunning take on the plaintive “I Don’t Care Much” is exceptional.
As Cliff, Eakeley looks freshly scrubbed and woefully out of place – and that’s a good thing – adding just the right amount of innocence on the verge of corruption. The Kit Kat Girls (and boys), are all appropriately lewd as they purr, coo, bump, grind to Rob Marshall’s more than suggestive choreography (recreated for the tour by Cynthia Onrubia) and act as the fabulous onstage orchestra. As the ill-fated lovers, Murray and Robertson find every scrap of pathos and humor as they sing of fruit and a future that will not be. In supporting roles, Patrick Vaill as Ernst and Alison Ewing as Fraulein Kost are both powerfully good, especially during the ominous let’s-make-our-homeland-great-again anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
The character Sally Bowles is a bit of an alluring cipher, not just for Cliff, but for the audience as well. Swinging from whimsical, childlike waif to scared and delusional brat, it is hard to figure out – or care — just what is she running from. But Larkin’s performance succeeds in getting us to try to figure her out nailing the character’s battered state of mind perfectly at the end of the evening with the title tune.
Outside of the show, the title song is a nifty little “wake-up/cheer-up” tuneful slap of life, but within the context of the story, it’s an emotional crack-up, packed with a self reveal that surprises and devastates and Larkin delivers the goods. As she chokes back tears – the only honest emotion Sally expresses all evening — Larkin perfectly captures Sally’s growing awareness. But is she ready to “go like Elsie, or ready to make another choice? Larkin leaves the audience wondering. Good stuff.
The shock of “Cabaret’s” final scene, restructured by director Sam Mendes for the 1998 Broadway revival and used again here, still unsettles. But perhaps it jolts now for different reasons. Fiction, indeed.
WHERE: Proctors Theater, Schenectady
WHEN: Through May 14
HOW MUCH: $20 – $90
MORE INFO: 518-346-6204, www.proctors.org