Jon Peterson as the Emcee and the 2017 National Touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s CABARET.
When the first scene of a musical is set in Berlin in 1931, the audience already knows what’s coming. But the knowledge that the Nazi party is coming to power, and in a few years, Adolph Hitler will unveil his “final solution,” doesn’t deter us from engaging in the story. Getting to know a bizarre cross-section of Berliners and ex-pats living on the fringes of this Bohemian city makes each step toward their fates more arresting and tragic.
Seeing this production today — when anti-Semitism is on the rise and neo-Nazis are emboldened — makes Cabaret more relevant than ever.
The touring production of the acclaimed Roundabout Theatre version of the Kander and Ebb musical, at Overture Center through March 26, is filled with pre-World War II malaise. At the naughty and sordid Kit Kat Klub, ashen-skinned girls in ripped tights and pale undergarments stomp around the stage, striking poses that are the opposite of erotic. Even the orchestra, seated on a second story platform above the stage, is outfitted in clothing, or the lack thereof, suggesting a dour burlesque.
Fortunately, the enigmatic Emcee (a spectacular Jon Peterson) delights in mischievous music hall banter, urging audience members to leave their troubles outside because here “life is beautiful,” sex is plentiful and in this most permissive European city, anything goes. This is just the thing struggling American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (a cardboard Benjamin Eakeley) is looking for: The closeted gay man wants to boost his creativity while overcoming his inhibitions.
On New Year’s Eve he meets Sally Bowles, a quirky chanteuse and homesick Brit who longs to hear her native language. They become fast friends and roommates after Sally is abruptly sacked by the club’s manager. She is a charming and flighty distraction for Cliff, and they develop a deep affection for one another, despite their differences.
As the oddly endearing Sally, who is determined to break into show business via the casting couch, Leigh Ann Larkin is sublime. Her singing voice glides over octaves, adapting easily to different genres from the silly “Don’t Tell Mama” to a devastating assertion that “Life is a Cabaret.” She slinks around the stage from party to party, hangover to hangover, with a combination of confidence and desperation.
In this portrait of young people pushing — or ignoring — boundaries, the most endearing and true love is shared by a cynical spinster who rents out rooms, Fraulein Schneider (a powerful Mary Gordon Murray), and a sweet older tenant, the fruit seller Herr Schultz (the adorable Scott Robertson, with a wandering accent). He brings apples to the apple of his eye, along with Italian oranges and one amazing pineapple. That they are separated by growing anti-Semitism in Germany is heartbreaking. But the fact that neither of them can grasp the gravity of the situation is tragic. Both shrug their shoulders and insist that they have survived other leaders, other political parties, wars and economic uncertainty. How should this be any different?
The innovative direction of this production, by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) and Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods), has been lauded ever since it opened at New York City’s Roundabout in 1998, and with good reason. It takes the focus off the escapism of life at the Kit Kat Klub and replaces it with tawdry and threadbare reality. Each moment of levity is countered with a gruesome truth. The style is not subtle; instead it is stark and striking.
The final moments of the production will leave audiences gasping, as the Emcee, the leader of the evening’s frivolity, becomes a victim of our willful ignorance.