The musical Cabaret remains wildly popular as it approaches its 50th anniversary. As proof, PlayMakers Repertory Companys current run is nearly sold out. For the record, Saturdays opening night displayed a high quality cast and impressive technical elements.
PlayMakers production is based on the 1998 Broadway version, a wholly reconceived staging from the 1966 original that better represents 1931 Berlin in all its hedonistic abandon and political ignorance. But director Joseph Haj and choreographer Casey Sams take a new look at some of characters.
The emcee of the Kit Kat Klub is usually influenced by Joel Greys clown-faced vaudevillian or Alan Cummings debauched sleazebag, but here Taylor Mac turns him into a sensually androgynous party boy. He gamely takes on all the outrageous costuming and choreography, endearing himself despite the bawdy jokes and lewd posturing.
Lisa Brescia makes Sally Bowles a true Englishwoman, more upper class than often seen, but fierce in her independence and practicality. She sings with great style and warmth, selling her songs without ever exaggerating. As the American writer Cliff, who falls for Sally, John Dreher is appropriately naïve at first about what is going on in Berlin politics but draws the audience into his growing horror at the situation.
That situation is beautifully underscored by the heartwarming and ultimately tragic love story of Cliffs landlady and a Jewish fruit shop owner. Julie Fishells Frau Schneider is sterner and more closed off than often played, but it pays off when she warms to the wooing of Jeffrey Blair Cornells sweetly charming Herr Schultz. Their moving relationship is the true center of the show.
Marion Williams clever scenic designs include a giant, off-center frame for the onstage orchestra (brilliantly led by Mark Hartman), a sliding platform that becomes various locations, and a huge, suspended row of cubicles that turn into dressing rooms and train cars. Josh Epsteins dramatic lighting and Jennifer Caprios fanciful costuming round out the topnotch visuals.
The production goes for a middle ground between the new Cabaret and the old, not as dark and dirty as the former but more naturalistic and mature than the latter. The Kit Kat Klub numbers here come across as too tame, but the chilling impact of the Nazi regime is all too convincingly portrayed.