Cabaret is one of those shows that can take on new meaning depending on the political climate.
There’s an uneasy feeling of recognition when Cliff Bradshaw -- the Harrisburg expat who has been living in Berlin -- decries his lover Sally Bowles’ lack of interest in politics. “If you’re not against all this stuff, you’re for it,” he says, shaking with anger. The show, and this particular staging, were conceived before the nationalist fervor of our times, but that makes it feel prescient, just as much as it is a look at history.
The Kimmel Center Presents' presentation of the lauded Sam Mendes/Rob Marshall adaptation of the much-performed Kander and Ebb musical (with a book by Philadelphia-born-and-raised Joe Masteroff) still feels as powerful now as audiences found it to be in its 1966 Broadway debut, and perhaps even more so.
Cabaret begins as the Emcee (a fantastic and engaging Jon Peterson) welcomes the audience and sets the tone for a night of dirty decadence with a dark undercurrent. That decadence will pervade the life of fresh-faced Cliff (Benjamin Eakely), who arrives in 1931 Berlin and finds distraction from his novel-writing at the divey Kit Kat Klub and in the arms of the bawdy Brit nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin). She doesn't understand why the political climate of her adopted home should stop the party.
As Cabaret progresses, the Kit Kat Klub’s official credo of leaving your troubles at the door becomes an impossible task. The Kit Kat Klub girls -- played with appropriate lascivious sensuality -- go seamlessly from a kick line to a goose step, and Cliff and Sally can no longer drown out with champagne and sex what’s going on around them.
Encroaching Nazism is writ large for Cliff when he sees how it affects the love story of Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson, reprising his role from the Broadway production) and Fräulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray, whose "What Would You Do?" is fantastic), who fall in love and are subsequently torn apart by Herr Schultz's religion.
Productions of Cabaret live or die on the quality of the omnipresent Emcee, and Peterson is funny and sexy in equal measure. He has the wide smile of a clown, yet oozes sensuality, even as Nazism rises outside the club's doors. He fondles and plays with the Kit Kat Girls and Boys (who double as the Kit Kat Band, and the show’s orchestra), and his enthusiasm seeps into the audience, which felt palpably energized during his numbers (“Money” and “Two Ladies” are standouts).
His charisma is not matched by Larkin, who has the frivolity of her character down, but not the power. While she coquettishly handles “Don’t Tell Mama,” her “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret” don’t have the show-stopping quality often associated with the part.
Cabaret is not a musical known for its subtlety of message, and this production doesn’t do anything to downplay the warning that hedonism can drown out impending horror if we’re not paying attention. The ending -- as dark and terrifying as ever -- remains more shocking than the sex.