A warning: You are not going to leave Winding Road Theatre Ensemble’s production of “Cabaret” feeling good.

Oh, sure, you might be humming some of the tunes from this classic piece of musical theater by John Kander and Fred Ebb.

But don’t expect to leave with a smile on your face. Do expect, however, to leave with much to think about.

“Cabaret” takes place in Berlin, in the years before World War II exploded. The Nazis are just beginning to exert their dark influence.

The opening song, “Wilkommen,” is a deep clue of what you are about to see:

“Leave your troubles outside,” says the Kit Kat Club’s Emcee, played with flashes of brilliance by Christopher Johnson, who co-directs with Evan Werner.

“.....Outside it is winter, but in here it is so hot.”

That opening song lays out the land for us: As the Nazis are taking control and exerting their power, there is a dismissal of it all, a shrug-the-shoulders-this-too-will-pass attitude that leaves a wide opening for Hitler to move in.

This production got the play — that it’s not about the singing and dancing; it’s about the willful ignorance of the changing political landscape, the desperation, the decadence, and the commitment to indulging life to its fullest and politics be damned. Until they damn you, of course.

You can see that in the way Johnson, head bald, face painted white, lipstick red and smeared, spits the word “Cabaret” in the opening song.

And in the way Lucille Petty’s Sally Bowles keeps trying to keep life from interfering with her dreams of happiness and fame by sleeping with loads of men, drinking, and wearing a false, cheery front, as though that would make her world, the world, the bright happy place she longs for. Though Sally is the star of the Kit Kat Club, she isn’t a big talent; she’s just a big personality. Petty however, is a big talent, though her singing voice is all over the place. And here’s the thing: that is perfect for this part. Sally is a lot of things — washed up, desperate, lonely — but she isn’t necessarily a singer. She is a survivor at all costs.

Winding Road’s “Cabaret” is insightful. And disturbing. And has a terrific ensemble cast, especially the Kit Kat Club performers, Lauren Adkisson,  Ryan Kinseth, Casi Omick, Armen Sarrafian, Stephanie Tournquist and Tashiana Holt. Nick Trice‘s turn as the American, Clifford, was strong, and Dani Dryer‘s gender-bending Ernst was riveting and a brilliant piece of casting on the directors’ part.

And it must be said: Mickey Nugent‘s choreography is organic, fun, and a visual delight.

With a few tweaks, “Cabaret” might be even better.

The biggest: Johnson should almost never leave the stage.

Sure, you long to experience his talent as much as possible, but there’s more to it than that.

In that first welcoming song, the Emcee introduces himself as our host. And indeed, that character is one that points out the fallacy of everything from the dancers’ virginity to the growing presence of the Nazi party. Johnson should be a constant presence in most scenes, and he isn’t.

The production was also hampered by the constraints of working in the often-unworkable cabaret space at the Temple of Music and Art. A small stage and limited lighting makes theatrical life difficult there. Nevertheless, the pacing of the first act and the abrupt blackouts between scene changes knocked out the rhythm of the piece.

It was also in that act at Saturday’s opening that the actors seemed to be a bit too self-aware. When that happens it can be hard for an audience to become involved in the story.

But by the second act, something clicked, and the play clipped along, allowing us to become immersed in the characters and the plot.

It is in that second act that the horror of the time and the tragedy of the story come to fruition. Johnson’s Emcee is a more constant presence in this act, the actors seemed to have settled in, and by the time the last scene ended, the audience was completely invested. And completely drained.

There are issues with this production — uneven acting, accents that disappear and come back, off-pitched singing.

But more than that, it is a production that is dedicated to this musical theater piece, which carries a profundity along with its tunes. Winding Road tackles it with heart, head and commitment.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.