Dallas — From the enticing opening number to the shocking climax, Cabaret, the darkly telling John Kander and Fred Ebb masterpiece, draws us into the infamous Kit Kat Klub and its brazenly sexual entertainers bumping and grinding while the Third Reich gains murderous momentum in 1930s Berlin.
It’s a pulse-pounding, jarring trip, brought to Dallas by the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series at the Winspear Opera House. The touring production, directed by BT McNicholl, is based on the 1998 Sam Mendes/Rob Marshall revival of the iconic 50-year-old musical for the Roundabout Theatre Company, a New York City non-profit theater also celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Everything about the multi-Tony Award-winning Cabaret is still compelling and of the moment in this national election year, with its relentless name-calling and fear-mongering. Themes of economic greed, homosexuality, abortion, and anti-Semitism are woven together in Joe Masteroff’s fast-moving book, based on a novella by Christopher Isherwood.
The seedy nightclub scene is front and center in this show, with the hot band, directed by Robert Cookman, occupying the top half of Robert Brill’s two-tiered set design with spiral staircases flanking both sides of the stage. The sexy musicians do double duty—above and below—through the night, baring muscled chests and ample thighs as they wail on the sax or make love to a clarinet. Talk about a live orchestra!
The omnipresent band adds an essential atmosphere that builds to an exhilarating, decadent jam late in the second act, in the classic “Kick Line” number. The show’s era-evocative dance numbers, choreographed by Cynthia Onrubio, are based on Rob Marshall’s original choreography. (Sadly, a few miles away at the Music Hall at Fair Park, a touring production of the brilliant 20th century musical Ragtime has some terrific singers and dancers making do with a “musical delivery system engineered with state-of-the-art virtual instrument technology”—to the detriment of the whole show.)
Over the years, Cabaret has boosted the careers—and been levitated in turn—by remarkable actors in the role of the smiling, hedonistic host of the club with “most beautiful” girls and boys in Berlin. Elegantly amoral Joel Grey and gutsy, sexually ambiguous Alan Cumming added artful nuances to the role.
Randy Harrison, the emcee for the national tour, is a mesmerizing and increasingly menacing ringmaster, as he moves from sexual to political pandering. Best known for his work in Showtime’s Queer as Folk, Harrison also has a lengthy and varied list of stage credits. The polish shows. Shirtless and wearing suspenders and a bowtie, Harrison beckons to the audience in his pliant tenor voice to “leave your troubles outside” in the defiantly bawdy number, “Willkommen.” Who can resist a little debauchery so playfully rolled out? After all, it’s New Year’s Eve in Berlin. We’re still a long way from Harrison’s ruthless and strident rendition of “Tomorrow Belong to Me,” a rising Nazi anthem.
The star of the Kit Kat’s revue is Sally Bowles, played by the ballad-belting Oscar-winner Liza Minnelli in the 1972 movie version. Here the “Toast of Mayfair” is a delicately featured bombshell named Andrea Goss, who sings the title song with a wailing, desperate note. Her Sally pleads to be loved by the audience, by the boys in the band, and by the closeted gay American writer Clifford Bradshaw, a tall and masculine Lee Aaron Rosen.
Their love affair begins with a “Perfectly Marvelous” and funny duet in which “this truly remarkable girl...has skillfully managed to talk herself into my room,” as hapless Cliff describes Sally when she turns up the charm. Goss’s hauntingly wishful “Maybe This Time” is all the more poignant because we know the odds are, in fact, not at all in her favor, as she insists.
The general hell-in-a-hand-basket cynicism of the Kit Kat and its denizens is relieved by the budding love affair between the German boarding house owner Frau Schneider (Shannon Cochran) and the Jewish fruit storeowner Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson). Cochran, a lovely, statuesque actress with a strong mezzo voice, exudes an exhausted pessimism when she sings “So What,” describing Frau Schneider’s fall from middle-class propriety. Then her voice softens and becomes sweetly flirtatious in her duets with Herr Schultz, a lovably polite and ardent Nelson. Their voices blend in easy, earnest harmony singing “Married,” a testament to enduring love, especially touching following the cacophony of “Money,” the hymn to visible greed as the potent force that actually “makes the world go round.”
As the Nazi presence moves from shadowy threat to violent action, the collapse of civility and love echoes through the lives of the characters, the musicians in the club, and the audience as the show moves to its inexorable and shocking finale.
Leaving the theater is not a tune-humming experience after you’ve seen such a powerfully sensual and emotional production of Cabaret. The music and words may resonate silently, however. It’s impossible not to be suddenly more aware of the radio news on the drive home, reporting on politicians’ stance on building walls, protecting gun rights and signing on to put “more boots on the ground” by candidates who pride themselves on their willingness to go to war. Wherever. Whenever. Etcetera.