Kander and Ebb’s Dark Classic Cabaret at Ohio Theatre Through April 2
2017 marks the 51st anniversary of Cabaret, and Columbus is treated to the touring production of Roundabout Theatre’s smash Broadway revival, which opened at the Ohio on Tuesday. The score, by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), retains all of its acerbic power and righteous intensity. And, Jon Masteroff’s book, adapted from John Van Druyten’s dramatic adaptation of the stories of Christopher Isherwood, still has a lot to say about worlds on the brink of devastation and the way those cracks let lost people thrive.
Confused and struggling American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley) finds himself in Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic, Nazis casting an ever-longer shadow. Guided to Fraulein Schneider’s (Mary Gordon Murray) rooming house by a charming smuggler he meets on the train, Ernst Ludwig (Patrick Vaill), he soon enough finds a bar. An otherworldly Emcee (Jon Peterson) presides over that bar, the Kit Kat Klub, where “life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the Orchestra is beautiful.” There, the writer meets erstwhile lounge singer Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin) and a lover from his past in London, Bobby (Joey Khoury).
The Emcee represents Berlin, and the world and Peterson’s take is a little farther along in its decay than some. He plays the Emcee as a man who has burned through his choices and only has a nihilistic wink, a sexual carnivore but less of a charmer. He’s been an entertainer so long, he exists to tweak both sides in as much as he’s human. What’s fascinating is the way he plays the Emcee as a watching-the-clock, here’s-another-song-you-monsters human and as an always-watching angel of death. Director BT McNicholl places him lurking throughout various scenes, having the Emcee appear out of doors and leaning perilously from the rafters, so there’s never a moment the menace slacks off.
The tragic parallel love story of boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider and Jewish fruit stand owner Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson) retains its pathos with “Married” — as sweet as this show gets. The Emcee nonchalantly, flatly tossing a brick between the two of them as a cacophony of broken glass rises sums up everything this production does well in one jolting moment. And Murray’s read on the wrenching “What Would You Do?” is as good as I’ve ever heard it sung.
The other love story doesn’t fare quite as well. Larkin’s Sally Bowles doesn’t have the tension you’d expect when we first meet her of hinting at the darkness underneath the frenetic party girl. When that pain is so close to the surface that early, her returning to believing in (and holding onto) nothing doesn’t have the same gut-punch of inevitability, it doesn’t feel like the character’s trying. That’s most apparent in her ferocious reading of the musical’s eponymous song, all days-of-speeding wide eyes and a body like a coiled spring. It’s a visceral reminder that running away doesn’t do any good for long but it robs the moment of some of the irony when it doesn’t simultaneously acknowledge the sensual pleasure of that kind of escape. It turns “When I go, I’m going like Elsie,” into flattened fatalism when there’s nothing left to toast and no gin to raise. Eakeley gamely grapples with Bradshaw, by design, the least interesting character on stage at any given time and his molten copper voice is a delight.
BT McNicholl’s (adapted from Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes) staging feels oddly static throughout. There are many remarkable set pieces and gorgeous tableau moments and more nuance than you’d automatically expect from a touring Broadway production. The trouble is those moments, especially the tendency to have two characters facing each other and not moving for entire songs, feel swallowed up by a wide, drab set. Those flashes of color don’t feel set off against the negative space as much as a dying ember in it. Which is a fair call, but I found my attention drifting in ways I never thought possible for one of my favorite musicals of the 20th century.
Those qualms aside, this is an important show done well. The gorgeous songs still pop and stab, and we can all benefit from dunking our heads in its acid catharsis once in a while.
Cabaret runs through April 2 with shows at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, and 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit capa.com.