John Kander/Fred Ebb/Joe Masteroff’s Cabaret premiered in 1966 at the height of America’s civil rights struggle and producer/director Hal Prince shaped the musical “to show how racism can happen here” even though the action of the script was set in early 1930s as the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany and began the racial cleansing of its Jewish population. It’s amazing, disturbing and frustrating to realize that 52 years later racism is once again causing turmoil in America and the moral lessons of Cabaret are still extremely relevant. McCoy Rigby Entertainment and director Larry Carpenter have mounted a visually, aurally and emotionally stunning production to kick start 2018. It’s a production not to be missed! From the cheerful opening drumroll of “Willkommen,” when the Emcee (Jeff Skowron) invites the audience to leave their troubles behind and enter the beautiful world of Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub, to that final drumroll and blackout when the Emcee applies the Star of David to his bustier and disappears into the darkness, this show grabs you and won’t let go.
Co-directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall heightened the raunchiness in their 1998 Broadway revival and director Carpenter and his choreographer Dana Solimando seemed to have doubled down in their current production. They have also given the show a voyeuristic slant with some of the Kit Kat staff watching the action from the side of the stage. It’s thrilling and unnerving at the same time. David Kay Mickelsen’s eye-catching costumes range from the fetishistic to the insane (dancing pineapples and a giant gorilla in a tutu). John Iacovelli’s scenic design gives the show that German Expressionist look and easily converts to the many settings in and out of the Klub. Steven Young’s masterful lighting puts a special glow on everything and everyone. Josh Bessom’s sound design is pitch perfect. The music sounds vibrant as musical director David O on piano leads the ten person all-girl on-stage band.
Kelly Lester provides a strong central focus for the drama as Fraulein Schneider, the spinster landlady who takes a chance on mature love with the local produce vendor, Herr Schulz (Jack Laufer), only to have second thoughts when bullied by the Nazis surrounding her. Her singing, her acting hold you spellbound. She gets strong support from Laufer. Erica Hanrahan-Ball proves to be a triple threat—as a chanteuse singing flawless German in “Married,” playing an accordion in “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” and servicing the German navy in her role as the rambunctious Fraulein Kost. The central role of Cliff, the American novelist watching the world go awry around him, has always been problematic and even with the added dollop of bisexuality the revival gave the role, Cliff is bland and Christian Pedersen isn’t able to do much about it. As Sally Bowles, the wanna-be decadent cabaret star, Zarah Mahler does better with the upbeat, raunchy numbers like “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr” than with the more dramatic ballad “Maybe This Time.” She gets cheers from the audience for her rendition of “Cabaret” but the audience seems to be acting on muscle memory more than visual and aural stimulation. Jeff Skowron evidently has memorized Alan Cummings’s performance in the 1998 revival and although he is interesting at times he mostly seems robotic. The Kit Kat Klub Girls and Boys put their all into Solimando’s choreography making the numbers feel fresh and alive.