Vintage Theatre’s sharp production of “Cabaret” begins suitably interactive.
A handful of dancers at the fictional Kit Kat Klub saunter around the actual audience. A few patrons are seated at cocktail tables; most have taken traditional seats. A dancer eyes someone from the stage and waves and winks as if she recognizes an old friend. Another enlists the help of an unsuspecting theatergoer seated in a front row in stretching her legs. The “girls” and “boys,” as the Emcee calls them (though the actors’ personal pronouns are more varied), roam, flirt, chat with audience members and banter with each other.
This soft intro into the iconic musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb with a book by John Masteroff elicits the intended response. The theater is abuzz. It is noisy with amused anticipation, much the way a nightclub might have been on any given night in Weimer era Berlin.
A bell tinkles and the Kit Kat dancers — clad in black, ruffled bloomers, garters and seamed stockings or pants — return to the bare but beckoning stage where the Emcee (eden origin), wearing sleek attire and dark pink eye shadow, welcomes the Klub’s patrons: us.
“Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!” he sings, looking out at the audience. Or is it leering? Sex — winked at or engaged in — has occupied the center of “Cabaret” since its 1966 Broadway premiere and onward to Bob Fosse’s classic 1972 film version, starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey.
Kander and Ebb’s musical was itself an adaptation of another show and another movie — “I Am a Camera” — based on the writer Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical collection “Berlin Stories,” about his time in pre-World War II Berlin.
Why is the provenance of the show worth recounting? Because it is bound up with a dark history that feels at times on the verge of repeating itself. As author George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” His quote was inscribed on a plaque in Auschwitz, and that bond between the show’s waning era and Germany’s genocidal future thrums beneath “Cabaret” until it declares itself fully at the end of the first act.
While in Berlin, Isherwood witnessed the rise of the National Socialist Party. He also partook in the sexual fluidity and transgressive pleasures of the city’s nightlife, while rooming with his friend Jean Ross, the model for Sally Bowles.
Isherwood’s avatar here is Cliff Bradshaw (Grant Bowman), at work on his second novel. On a train to Germany, the Pittsburgh native makes the acquaintance of Ernst Ludwig (Trenton Schindele, reprising the role he played in Phamaly’s haunting 2015 production). The jovial black marketer takes a liking to Cliff and sets the American up with landlady Fraulein Schneider (Mary Campbell).
Diverging from its celluloid sibling, the show gives sweet and vulnerable space to the relationship of Schneider and her Jewish tenant, Herr Schultz (Brian Trampler), a fruit seller (“It Couldn’t Please Me More”). Campbell is a revelation as the older woman pondering her place in society (“So What”). As for Trampler, he captures the hope and the denial of the aging Schultz, who misreads the depths of his fellow German citizens’ antisemitism and the force of the political party feeding it.
One other boarder will figure into that bigotry: sex worker Frau Kost (Samantha Barrasso), who keeps the rent paid with a steady stream of “nephews.”
Cliff’s first visit to the Kit Kat Klub brings him into Sally’s orbit. Abby McInerney portrays the flighty headliner who befriends, and beds, the writer. (We know from an earlier encounter with one of the Kit Kat fellas that Cliff is, if not gay, bisexual.) When Sally breaks up with the club’s owner, she moves in with Cliff. She’s pregnant.
As the fantasy of a wee family starts to take root for Cliff and less so for Sally, Germany’s descent into Nazism is beginning to assert itself. Has there ever been a song as liltingly beautiful as “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — sung with patriotic fervor by Frau Kost and Ernst — that proves to be utterly vile?
The vile sneaks up in “Cabaret.” That is one of its jarring strengths. Its beautiful songs contain the seeds of darkness. By Act II, there is no confusion when the Emcee’s ballad “If You Could See Her” reveals itself to be an antisemitic gag. (It’s a song some in the audience laughed at; the meaning of that laughter, I can’t be sure.) Even McInerney’s beautifully belted rendition of “Cabaret,” with its summons to connect (“What use is sitting alone in your room?”) strikes notes of a desperation that lies beyond the personal.
Director Bernie Cardell, his cast and entire creative team have crafted a taut, entertaining production. Ryan Walkoviak’s stripped-down set, with its brick walls and iron beams, offers a wisely spare backdrop to the Emcee’s and his dancers’ extravagant gestures. (All that is missing is the smog of cigarettes.)
Susan Rahmsdorff-Terry’s costumes are their own pleasure, from the dancers’ ruffled bloomers to the lederhosen get-up in the dirty ditty “Two Ladies,” and from Fraulein Schneider’s mildly frumpy outfit to the red gown that the Emcee dons.
A late, surprisingly moving moment comes when Cliff reprises the Emcee’s “Willkommen.” It is no longer a clever invitation. Instead, it is a farewell drained of hope, of possibility. Bowman’s voice carries rich notes of melancholy. He is clear-eyed about the darkness dawning.
And though the show in Berlin is likely to go on for a few years yet, the worn and grim faces of those cheeky Kit Kat Klub dancers in a final tableau declare the party over.
IF YOU GO
“Cabaret”: Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Joe Masteroff. Directed by Bernie Cardell. Featuring Abby McInerney, eden origin, Grant Bowman, Mary Campbell, Samantha Barrasso, Trenton Schindele, Brian Trampler. At the Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St., Aurora. Through Oct. 22. For tickets and info: vintagetheatre.org or 303-856-7830
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