This is not the “Cabaret” many of us know and love.
The Arizona Repertory Theatre’s powerful production of the Kander and Ebb classic, which opened Wednesday, is intent on showing us a different side of the musical.
The glorious songs are all there, as are the decadence of pre-World War II Berlin, the sorrow, and the horror of Nazis who spread terror outside while a cheery front is maintained inside the Kit Kat Club.
But the ART production, directed by Danny Gurwin, pulls back a few layers that many productions neglect.
The love story between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, which often fades into the background, pops in this production. The genuine joy the two feel when they are surprised by love late in their lives, and the deep heartache that follows when she decides marriage to a Jew isn’t possible, give us a glimpse of humanity in a dark world that cares little for it.
Shira Elena Maas, and Charlie Hall, both juniors in the UA musical theater program, embraced these characters with an honesty and heartache that underscored the tragedy that unfolds as the Nazi regime comes into power.
Another revelation was the character of Clifford Bradshaw, the writer who cruises into Berlin and quickly finds a room to let at Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, the Kit Kat Club and Sally Bowles. It’s a tough character to play — Clifford is bland as can be next to Sally, the Emcee and the other characters that make up this play. But Brian Klimowski’s Cliff had more shadings than is the norm. The character’s struggles with his conscious, his sexuality, and the world around him is clear in Klimowski’s hands, but never becomes hammy. His conscience is a sharp contrast to many of the others, who choose to ignore the impending doom and carry on in a way-too-cheery manner.
But don’t misunderstand — the front-and-center characters in “Cabaret” are still the Emcee at the Kit Kat Club, and Sally Bowles, the Brit who is the headliner.
Josh Dunn’s androgynous Emcee is wildly disturbing, sexy, nasty. He often stands aside, keeping a watchful eye on the others. There’s an edge to Dunn’s Emcee that makes him seem more dangerous, more decadent. But there also is a knowing about him — as though he understands how the world is changing. He can point it out, mock it, but he knows he can’t escape it.
Ali Wood Moser is a little young and innocent to play the world-weary Sally Bowles. The musical theater major was likely dying to bust out and really make Sally’s songs showstoppers, which could be easily done. But Sally is no great talent; just a great personality invested in believing everything will work out. Moser understood that. Her talent is clear; in five or 10 years she likely will be able to portray a Sally who has been knocked down by life a few times.
The whole production was rich in raunch and nuance. There’s the impressive dance by guest choreographer Mark Esposito, grad student Leah Mednick Foley’s costume design that spoke to the times and the characters, the neon Kit Kat sign above the stage that cackled and lit up in a way that seemed as weary as the Kit Kat dancers who strut their flesh while their eyes remain vacant.
“Cabaret” is a brilliant musical that can easily become a cheery song-and-dance show. The cast of UA students and director Gurwin would have none of that. This “Cabaret” is a disturbing reminder that evil can flourish, and that there is a heavy cost if we do nothing about it.