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Welcome to the Kit Kat Klub, where the girls are beautiful, the boys are beautiful, and even the orchestra is beautiful.
So intones the Emcee (Jon Peterson) at the beginning of Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Cabaret, which opened on Madison’s Overture Hall stage March 21. Right from the start, the irony of the statement isn’t lost on the audience.
The touring company, part of the Broadway Across America series, taps into director Sam Mendes’ version to offer a grittier look at Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party. Gone is the show business glitz, as the Emcee becomes an androgynous Virgil guiding fellow cast and audience members through the decadent hell that Germany’s capital had become just prior to World War II.
Not surprisingly, the musical by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff has more than stood the test of time since it was first introduced in 1966. In fact, the 50th anniversary tour may even sow seeds of doubt for contemporary audiences about the dangers of leaving your politics at the door in favor of having a good time.
The thinly developed narrative involves a chance meeting of American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley) and German traveler Ernest Ludwig (Patrick Vaill) on a Berlin-bound train.
Bradshaw does Ludwig a favor, the pair strikes up a friendship, and the German introduces the author to the Kit Kat Klub and Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin), an English chanteuse who captures the American’s trusting heart. In keeping with the show’s theme, no good can come of the relationship.
But the bulk of the show’s 2 hours and 30 minutes is given over to a variety of Kit Kat Klub performances that offer embellishment, explanation and commentary on both the narrative’s proceedings and Germany’s declining social climate. The songs are many, and many of the songs are memorable if only for their ribald humor and unbridled eroticism.
Robert Brill’s impressive two-story set doubles as both the club and the boarding house where Clifford and Sally take up residency, clearly demonstrating how one aspect of their lives bleeds into the other. The top tier is reserved for the club’s house band, some of which double as the Kit Kat Girls and Kit Kat Boys. All told, both demonstrate an economical use of space and cast.
Any production of Cabaret lives or dies based on the interpretation of the Emcee and Sally Bowles, characters that helped make the careers of Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli, respectively, in the 1972 Bob Fosse film version. The current stage version is no different when it comes to determining its success.
Peterson’s Emcee has an eerily charming, almost reptilian quality as he boldly seduces the audience into his beguiling, dangerous world. He interacts with the house, even coming into the audience at the beginning of Act II and selecting both male and female members to dance with him on stage. The actor wears the role almost too well, creating a memorable – and dangerous – Emcee.
As Bowles, Larkin boasts a voice both powerful and nuanced as she seduces and claws her way through the world and into Bradshaw’s heart. She teases and taunts, doing what she needs to do to survive at a time and a place when survival is all but guaranteed.
So charming is she, in fact, that one can only hope the character will survive the holocaust to come. But her failure to face reality all but seals her fate.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to relive it, or so the saying goes. Cabaret is one more in a long history of examples of the failure to act responsibly in the face of horrifying totalitarian rule.
Maybe there’s a lesson here for all of us.
The production in Overture Hall at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts runs through March 26.