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Theater review: ‘Cabaret’ is brilliant descent into darkness

Theater review: ‘Cabaret’ is brilliant descent into darkness

Park Playhouse’s superb treatment of the Kander and Ebb musical from 1966 is one to marvel at while

Properly in situ in the musical that bears its name, the song “Cabaret” is not an invitation to the good life, as in many upbeat performances it seems to be. Rather, it’s the “to be or not to be” speech of a young nightclub chanteuse in Berlin in 1931 who wonders what to do next in her messed-up life, and in Shannon Rafferty’s electrifying delivery, the number makes sense in a way that it sometimes doesn’t.

Indeed, Park Playhouse’s superb treatment of the Kander and Ebb musical from 1966 is one to marvel at while you’re there and ponder after you’ve gone home.

‘Cabaret’

WHERE: The Lakehouse in Washington Park, Albany

WHEN: Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., through July 29

HOW MUCH: $20-$12 for reserved seating; lawn seating is free

MORE INFO: 434-0776 or www.parkplayhouse.com

Joe Masteroff’s script, based on works by John van Druten and Christopher Isherwood, is a series of scenes about the beginning of the end between the world wars. In the seedy and alluring Kit Kat Klub are sexy chorus girls and boys, partying like there’s no tomorrow. The headliner is Sally Bowles (Rafferty), an English ex-pat who likes a snort of cocaine and a shot of gin to get through the day — and night. (The show, by the way, isn’t appropriate for children under 13.)

Into her life comes American Cliff Bradshaw (Jacob A. Ware), a bisexual naïf aspiring to write a novel about the European life he’s immersing himself in. Despite his nodding acquaintance with “Mein Kampf,” he’s still living it up in Germany’s version of the Jazz Age, and Sally is a larger-than-life character who first captures his attention, then his heart.

Related story

For Gazette theater writer Bill Buell's preview of this show, click here.

Slithering through the proceedings is the nightclub’s Master of Ceremonies (Jason Jacoby), initially a kind of observing Greek chorus, but ultimately a participant — and that’s exactly the idea that the show and director Michael LoPorto want us to take away.

At one point Sally asks, “Politics? What has that to do with us?” and Cliff tells her to open her eyes and notice the emerging anti-Semitism and Nazism swallowing them all. No one can stand by and pretend the party will go on forever. The last five songs of Act II are dark, complementing the bright and naughty numbers that open Act I, and LoPorto and the cast pace this descent into hell brilliantly.

William Davis’ handsome set design in the large band shell in Washington Park accommodates a tight eight-member band, conducted by Justin P. Cowan, who is also the musical director; a runway into the audience; and three levels of playing area for the well-trained ensemble, which handles songs like “Wilkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama” and “The Money Song” (in a savage rendition) with style.

Choreographer Geoffrey Doig-Marx has given them some sexy bump-and-grind to execute, and they are to the manner born. Danielle Breitenbach’s costumes are period perfect. And accents? Secure.

Susan Jeffaries and Larry Greenbush make a poignant Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, two older people also devoured by the changing times. Jeffaries’ handling of “So What?” and “What Would You Do?” is compelling, the bitter pat-on-the-back of a survivor. Julia Register, as Fraulein Kost, is not on stage for long, but you won’t forget her humor or pathos. And Micah Bond is a credible hail-fellow-well-met turned creepy thug.

The three leads subtly delineate the emotional arc of their characters. In Act I, Ware’s Cliff is wide-eyed; in Act II, he’s clear-eyed: from self-involved to other-interested. Jacoby is the complete song-and-dance man, so when the ironies of life finally get to The Master of Ceremonies, we see the greasepaint running. And Rafferty, whom we have had the pleasure of seeing on stage from childhood, negotiates the slide from the bubbly girl of “Don’t Tell Mama” to the heartbroken young woman of “Maybe This Time” with utter conviction. The dramatic scenes with Ware crackle, and the readings of her songs are revelatory. A trio of brilliant performers.

I inadvertently showed up on Sunday for the final preview, but producing artistic director Owen M. Smith was so confident in the show’s readiness that he allowed me to review. He had every reason to be proud.

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