Olney Theater Center kicks off its season with a captivating new production of “Cabaret.” With a story that charts the rise of fascism in Germany’s inter-war Weimar Republic, it’s hard to imagine a timelier musical. Olney mounts a gorgeous show with a superlative cast.
The company stages the musical’s revival incarnation, directed by Sam Mendes on Broadway in 1993. The original musical was first produced in 1966, based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin,” a memoir of the author’s time spent in Germany in the early 1930s. Cabaret, with book by Joe Masteroff, centers the action in the Kit Kat club, a burlesque theatre helmed by the enigmatic Emcee (Mason Alexander Park). With music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb (also of Chicago fame) much of the plot of the story focuses on Sally Bowles (Alexandra Silber), a club headliner, and her ill-fated romance with Clifford Bradshaw (Gregory Maheu), an American writer who is awed by the sexual freedom of Berlin’s counterculture.
Mason Alexander Park is spellbinding as the Emcee, the dark, glittering heart of the show. A kind of audience guide, he opens the show, strutting with confidence onstage in high-heeled boots and a red fur stole, proclaiming, “We’ll have no troubles here!” A queer chaos agent, skulking around the edges of many scenes, the character rejects easy categorization. Park embraces all of the character’s complexity and vulnerability; his rendition of “I Don’t Care Much,” a second-act song performed after it’s clear that ‘troubles’ have indeed come, is riveting.
Olney mounts a gorgeous show with a superlative cast.
The company’s production values remain superb. Wilson Chin’s set, dripping with chandeliers, and the low-golden tones of Colin K. Bill’s lighting design, create the grim glamour of the Kit Kat club. Kendra Rai’s bold burlesque costumes delight, especially the loud reds of Sally Bowle’s onstage getups; the latter is flaunted in Sally and Co.’s delightful performance of the iconic “Mein Herr,” early in the show.
Alexandra Silber brings a restless energy to Sally, the club’s star at the beginning of the story. Silber plays the character with almost a screwball sensibility that appears to mask desperation. With the plummy vowels of an upper-class British accent, her performance hints at an interesting past, but one that remains closed to Clifford, something she makes clear even before she forces her way into his apartment and life, after being fired from the club. “You must never ask me questions,” she warns him when they first meet.
Gregory Maheu is excellent as the fresh-faced Clifford Bradshaw, who starts the show as the American ingenue. He gives the character the square, measured tones of a classic film actor, emphasizing a clear-eyed can-doism that contrasts nicely with the cynicism of his surroundings.
Though Sally and Clifford’s story drives the plot, the cabaret remains center stage and easily provides some of the best scenes. The performance of “Two Ladies,” a clever and hilarious interlude showcasing the Emcee, perfectly captures the subversive joy of burlesque. The kick line that opens the second act wows with its precision and energy; Katie Spelman’s excellent choreography is made more dynamic and intimate by the stairs that descend the stage down to the audience. The connection is made even more intense when the number resolves into a fascist march, manifesting the changing political scene.
The story marks this rise of Nazi power through the relationship of Fraulein Schneider (Donna Migliaccio), the owner of Clifford’s apartment, and one of her tenants, Herr Schultz (Mitchell Hebert, excellent), a grocer who is Jewish. Their romance is a charming and tragic interlude. Donna Migliaccio as Fraulein Schneider is especially affecting as an older woman trying to survive. “Suppose simply keeping still means you’ll manage until the end,” she sings. Tom Story, so good in Olney’s production of “Matilda” last season, is chilling as Ernst Ludwig, an early sympathizer to the Nazi cause.
That cause only becomes stronger in the shorter second half, and the action becomes darker as a result. Characters flaunting swastika armbands sit onstage, a menacing presence. Director Alan Paul’s choice to seat part of the audience onstage points to ideas of complicity that the show’s themes parallel. “Politics, what’s that got to do with us?” quips Sally, a stark reminder of the dangers of apathy.
That we know the end of the story makes it no less sad. “Cabaret” may finish in a minor key, but it is a major enjoyment, and a must-see for this season.
Running time: About two hours, with one fifteen-minute intermission.
Advisory: Production includes simulated smoking and special haze effects. Themes equivalent to a PG-13 film rating.
‘Cabaret’ runs through Oct. 6 at the Olney Theatre Center. For tickets or more information, click here.