Barrington Stage Company's production of “Cabaret”, the first show to be directed by its new artistic director Alan Paul, is bold and relevant. Its problem is that it tries too hard. The dramatic effect is uneven; the production's overreach cheapens the musical's thematic timeliness.
The most consistently impressive aspect of the show is its overall production design, creating a world within the world of Berlin in 1929. Scenic designer Wilson Chin transforms the Boyd Quinson stage into a spectacular night club venue, with old chandeliers mixed with disco balls suspended from the ceiling and most of the house lit theatrically. The eight member Kit Kat band sits on tiered levels upstage. Chin has extended downstage with a wide, five step stairway leading to the audience level. The Kit Kat Klub ensemble is in constant movement, on and off the stage, up and down the aisles cavorting with and gyrating for the audience. This is a production that gets in your face whether you want it there or not.
It seems that every new production of “Cabaret” begets a version that tries to shock or outdo the last. The tactic here is a freaky Emcee and a raunchy Kit Kat ensemble, many of whom are crossed-dressed. Provocatively detailed costumes (leather and lace the preferred mix and match) by Rodrigo Munoz do the trick.
Paul’s direction is particularly deft in shifting the narrative between the Kit Kat Klub and Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house. The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb is, as always, marvelous. The big production numbers, with Katie Spelman's obviously sexualized choreography, like the mood-setting, opening number “Wilkommen”, the witty “Don’t Tell Mama” and the rousing “Mein Herr” do captivate attention. (If some of the choreographed posturing recalls "Moulin Rouge" on Broadway, note that Spelman worked on that, too.)
Casting is uneven. Those for whom “Cabaret” is defined by Bob Fosse’s film version starring Liza Minnelli will likely find there's a lot more “book” (spoken dialogue) in Joe Masteroff's 1966 script (run time is 2:45 including intermission) than might be expected. Much of the melodramatic heavy lifting is left to Krysta Rodriguez in the famous role of Sally Bowles. Her songs are heavy lifting, too, particularly as the show’s best known are “owned” by Minnelli. Sensibly, most revivals re-orchestrate the famous Bowles' solos, “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret”. But, as orchestrated and performed here, the show’s title number, rather than being a full-throated anthem of personal defiance, transacts as contemplative defeatism.
And what about the Emcee? If Joel Gray’s Emcee suggested androgyny and evil, this interpretation by Nik Alexander is uber-sexualized and manic, careening between creepy and bizarre. The authentic grotesqueness the interpretation of Emcee aspires to is only fully realized in the anti-Semitic satire “If You Could See Her”, largely due to the inspired costuming of the Emcee’s girlfriend (no spoiler here).
The real star of the show is Candy Buckley as Fraulein Schneider, whose stage presence towers above the rest. Schneider’s duet, affectionately known as the "pineapple' song, with her Jewish suitor Herr Schultz, nicely played by Richard Kline, is charming. But, Buckley really commands the stage with “What Would You Do” where she confronts the choice of marrying Schultz in the face of rising Nazi power. Does self-survival prevail?
Schenider’s dilemma is the dramatic crux of this BSC production; how it dramatizes how a society reacts to creeping authoritarianism is mixed. Earlier in the production, an unhinged Emcee drops trousers to reveal a thong emblazoned with a swastika. By the finale of this “Cabaret”, even good-citizen Schneider has donned a Nazi armband. The armband is warning enough.