Artiste, muse, temptress, seductress, Cabaret heroine Sally Bowles (Charissa Hogeland, Kinky Boots national tour) made a magnificent entrance Wednesday night at the Arden, appearing on a balcony above a bevy of scantily-clad chorus babes who danced and writhed, stretched and pranced on the stage below.
Welcome to Cabaret, the opening show in the Arden Theatre Company’s 30th anniversary season.
An immensely enjoyable musical with terrific music and great choreography by Jenn Rose, director Matthew Decker’s staging has brilliant ensemble performances but features puzzlingly understated — even lackluster — turns by its three leads.
It’s 1931 Berlin and we’re in the Kit Kat Klub, one of the sleazy bohemian joints that sprang up in Weimar Germany, a strange, liberated period in Germany’s history sandwiched by the horrors of the two World Wars.
“Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!” sings the queerly-attired Emcee (John Jarboe, director and librettist of Opera Philadelphia’s ANDY: A Popera, making his Arden debut).
Half in drag, his face covered in white grease makeup that evokes something between Kabuki theater and a crazy Halloween mask, the Emcee had made his entrance a few minutes earlier to warm up the audience, some of whom were seated at round little cabaret tables around the stage, whose runway thrust toward the rest of the audience.
Decker, co-founder of Theatre Horizon, has recent credits that include a series of children’s shows at the Arden. Here he delivers an awfully loosey-goosey, laid-back version of the musical that tries to evoke the experience of an actual cabaret while maintaining the show’s satirical edge.
The mix isn’t always successful, and the production’s dizzy mirth often obscures its dark, apocalyptic underside and the coiled, razor-edged, metallic tension that carries the story forward to its ineluctable conclusion with the ugly triumph of the Nazi ethos.
Cabaret is above all a war story – it’s about the war of liberal democracy versus totalitarianism, the war of the sexes, and the war of bohemianism versus bourgeois respectability. Much of that is lost here, despite Jarboe’s attempts to use the musical’s themes to critique the Trump administration.
Jarboe plays the Emcee for laughs and amps up the more cuddly aspects of his camp character. It’s a far cry from the famously acidic performance delivered by Joel Grey, who originated the part on Broadway and played the character in Bob Fosse’s acclaimed 1972 film adaptation. For her part, Hogeland is far too understated as Sally, with a performance too subtle for a show that’s supposed to be over-the-top. The story is told through the eyes of Sally’s love interest, a well-fed American middle class boy named Cliff (Daniel Fredrick, The Importance of Being Earnest at Walnut Street Theatre), a would-be author who moves to Berlin for inspiration. This role recedes in the shadows, lost in the hustle.
Cabaret is one of those shows that’s as famous for its distinguished pedigree and history as its aesthetic merits. It was created by composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb, and Philadelphia-born playwright Joe Masteroff, who adapted it from John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera — itself an adaptation of Goodbye to Berlin, a 1939 semi-autobiographical novella by British-American author Christopher Isherwood.
When it premiered in 1966, Cabaret was a provocative assault on gender norms, artistic norms, and moral norms, a work of art suffused with ’60s values. It has has been revived about once a decade since, including three Broadway productions in 1993, 1998, and 2014, all directed by Sam Mendes and all featuring Alan Cumming as the Emcee with the role of Sally played by Jane Horrocks, Natasha Richardson, and Michelle Williams respectively, while Liza Minnelli was hands-down brilliant in the 1972 film version.
The Arden pays homage to this tradition, while not quite giving the show the oomph it deserves.
Cabaret. Through Oct. 22 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street. Tickets: $37-$52; $15 teens and children. Information: 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.