It’s such an attractive offer when, on a cold night in March, the energetic Emcee (Erin McConnell), with her pixie haircut and a bawdy twinkle in her eye, implores you to come in to the Kit Kat Klub and leave your troubles outside. But after a few playfully naughty chorus numbers in Cabaret, it becomes clear that having another drink of gin or doing another line of cocaine to forget about the increasingly dire world around you is a recipe for heartbreak, or worse.
StageQ and OUT!cast Theatre’s stunning production of the classic Kander and Ebb musical, at the Bartell Theatre through March 30th, juxtaposes the sexual freedom in the outrageous nightlife of 1930s Berlin with the creeping totalitarianism of the Nazi regime, hitting both the hedonistic and the horrific truths of the era hard. Directed by Steve Noll and Dana Pellebon, it’s an unflinching look at the cost of living only in the moment. For the supposedly carefree main characters, rudderless American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Brett Kissell) and flighty British nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Kiki Em), soon it’s too late to stand up to a government that actively demonizes and then tries to eradicate their friends -- Jews and homosexuals -- in the name of nationalism.
As Cliff, the sexually ambiguous and uninspired writer, floating through Europe on his parents’ money and hoping inspiration will strike, Kissell is a convincing guide for the audience as he learns to love and then loathe the decadent capital of Germany. His pleasant singing voice blends well in a duet with Em, as his lithe, accidental love. Kissell effectively plays the frustration in Cliff’s half-hearted atttempt at solving all their problems by proposing marriage and whisking Sally away to America, acknowledging that the couple is a long ways from true love.
Lust, however, is in great supply at the Kit Kat Klub. In this “gritty and gender-fluid” production, which leans more toward the Alan Cumming-helmed 1998 Broadway revival than the Liza Minelli film version of the early 1970s, there are an array of randy men and saucy women in the roster of burlesque dancers, clothed in kinky lingerie that reads more tawdry than cute. They gyrate, thrust, and slink their way through numbers like “Mein Herr” and “Don’t Tell Mama,” showing off some well executed kick lines and tight group dance numbers. Lyn Pilch’s choreography unabashedly dives into simulated threesomes, erotic acrobatics and playful ass grabbing.
While Em’s Sally maintains a Betty Boop femininity, McConnell’s Emcee is audaciously base, reveling in performing for her nightly audience of eager voyeurs. In addition to introducing every new act and taking the spotlight for the delightfully suggestive “Two Ladies” and politically charged “If You Could See Her,” this Emcee is also a Puckish presence in other scenes outside the club, sometimes observing the action, sometimes causing it.
In the midst of this gin-soaked orgy, Cabaret also includes a modest, chivalric love story between an old maid landlady, Fraulein Schneider (the vocal powerhouse Jessica Lee Kasinski) and the adorable widower Herr Schultz (the heart-breakingly genuine Donovan Armbruster), the owner of a fruit market who woos with apples, oranges and pineapples in hand. While Cliff and Sally’s relationship-of-the-moment is doomed by personal differences and their own impracticality, Schneider and Schultz’s love-for-the-ages is doomed by polical forces and their overly practical response to them. In a cast that is universally strong vocally, Armbruster’s sweet love songs and Kasinski’s deeply resonant, bitter summation of her lot in “So What?” and “What Would You Do?” stood out for their honesty and simplicity.
Secondary characters Ernst Ludwig (played flawlessly by the Aryan looking, if ironically named Brandon Germany) and the disillusioned working girl Fraulein Kost (Katy O’Leary) also impressed.
Knowing that this story will end as Hitler’s “final solution” is implemented does little to soften the blow. The production’s final scene is chilling -- the jaw dropping result of Teresa Sarkela’s carefully detailed scenic design, Spencer Christoffel’s innovative sound design and Zak Stowe’s lighting. And while this played as a museum piece a decade ago, it’s impossible not to see hear echoes of current anti-immigrant, white nationalist rhetoric in the musical now, not to mention the images from a rally in Charlottesville and a prom photo in Baraboo. Cabaret is sadly relevant and its message is all the more frightening.