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This is not your mother's Cabaret.
People expecting to see a live version of the 1972 Liza Minnelli-Joel Grey movie may be shell-shocked within the first 10 minutes of the Toledo Repertoire Theatre's season finale, which runs through June 22.
There is little that's subtle about this production. After helping theatergoers to their seats, the "ushers" - the Kit Kat Club dancers - stroll onto the stage and languidly begin warming up, stretching provocatively, writhing suggestively.
This sets the tone for the musical, which takes place in the decadent Berlin of the early 1930s, during the waning days of the Weimar Republic.
An American writer, Cliff Bradshaw, arrives in the city in the hopes of finding inspiration for a novel. With the help of Ernst Ludwig, a Berliner he met on the train, Cliff gets a room at Fraulein Schneider's boarding house and sets out to explore the city, ending up at the seedy Kit Kat Club, where a slightly androgynous, very spooky emcee welcomes any and all to the pleasures within.
The club's star is Sally Bowles, "the toast of Mayfair," a singer of middling talent whose main appeal is being English. Sally's adept at ignoring reality (the cocaine helps), and when the club owner decides he needs a new star, she simply moves in with Cliff.
Cliff and Sally's relationship is mirrored by the courtship of Fraulein Schneider by an elderly lodger, Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. But the rise of the Nazis will doom both affairs.
There were a few miking problems on opening night, with the sound getting louder and softer for no apparent reason. It was noticeable, but it didn't distract too much from the production.
Kudos to music director Josh Glover and the other seven members of the orchestra, who played crisply but not so loud that they overshadowed the singing.
Kathryn Bodie plays Sally with a slightly frenetic edge. She knows the world is changing, but she refuses to face a new reality. Her singing isn't great, but it's not supposed to be; Sally is a mediocre talent at best. When she's called upon to sing well, as in "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret," Bodie comes through.
Zach Lahey has a bit oftrouble playing Cliff, but he's such a veteran of the stage that I have to believe it's the production, not the talent. Cliff is bisexual, which is why he was drawn to Berlin, but other than a few passing references to it, and a kiss designed to elicit gasps from the audience, his sexuality is a moot point, and Lahey seems at a loss over what to do with it. As the play proceeds, it's less of an issue
and Lahey becomes a much stronger presence.
Played by Anna Francis-Allegrini and Lee Krhenbhl, Schneider and Schultz are sweetly touching, which makes their difficult choice hard to bear. Schneider learns that if she consorts with a Jew, she could lose her boarding house license and with it her livelihood. Schultz is more optimistic. He was born a German, after all, and he believes that politics have little to do with ordinary people.
Her pragmatism and his blind optimism provide a small look at the mindset that allowed the unimpeded rise of the Nazis.
Also worthy of note are Bradley Jayne as Ernst Ludwig and Lindsey Denham as Fraulein Kost, who represent the growing evil. Denham, especially, allows us to see the joy Kost gets by exacting revenge on Fraulein Schneider, who has humiliated her. She, too, has a show-stopping moment, one that sends chills up the spine.
And then there's the emcee.
As played by director Matthew Bowland, under the stage name of Michael Haack, he is decadent, sinister, and mysterious, whether he's center stage in "Wilkommen" and "Two Ladies" or lurking in the background, his behavior mirroring the political winds of change. He may be an emcee at a less-than-successful nightclub, but he is, above all, a survivor, and he will do what it takes to stay that way.
It is a riveting performance in a powerful production.
"Cabaret" continues in the Toledo Repertoire Theatre, 16 10th St., with performances at 8 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday, and June 19-21 and matinees at 2:30 p.m. Sunday and June 22. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $5 for youths with valid student IDs; they may be purchased by calling the Rep or at www.toledorep.org. Information: 419-243-9277.