No matter how many times I’ve seen the musical Cabaret, or in what version (there are several in existence), I don’t think I’ve ever seen a truly bad production. Talent and budgets may differ, of course, but the long-lasting story, or multiple stories, at the heart of the show just seem to carry it through no matter what.
There is no question of there being any lack of talent or skill in the Asolo Rep’s season-opening rendering of Cabaret. As you would expect, the production values are stellar: the scenic design by Tijana Bjelajac (a two-tier set with black-and-gold Art Deco-y motifs), the costumes by Alejo Vietti (frequently stunning, but also revealing of the characters and their milieu) and the lighting by Cory Pattak (effectively alternating between hushed and garish) envelop us in the world of Weimar Germany of 1930, where the Kit Kat Klub is a welcome escape from the troubles outside.
In director-choreographer Josh Rhodes’ vision, the Kit Kat is not the seedy, bottom-level club we usually see. Rather, it’s a place where entertainers are working energetically in a popular art form of the time, and where a singer like Sally Bowles (Iris Beaumier) might possess more talent than usually supposed. In Rhodes’ conception, the British Sally, a woman of color here, has come to Germany to try to make it big like the American performer Josephine Baker really did in Paris. It’s just her bad luck or choices with the men in her life that do in her chances.
It's certainly a change from the tatty atmosphere we’re used to with Cabaret, but it doesn’t affect the main storyline, which centers on Sally’s doomed relationship with American writer Cliff (Alan Chandler as a stand-in for original author Christopher Isherwood), a similarly ill-fated one between landlady Fraulein Schneider (Kelly Lester) and fruit shop owner Herr Schultz (Philip Hoffman), and the rise of Nazism that will change everyone’s lives forever.
This Cabaret follows along the lines of the 1993 production, which was both franker and darker than the original of the 1960s. The club routines are naughtier, Cliff’s bisexuality is more open, and the final fates of many of the characters are graphically portrayed in the final scene. It all makes for a powerful production.
The cast doesn’t have any weak links, with Lincoln Clauss, outstanding as the Emcee, and Lester, poignant as the lonely Fraulein Schneider, among the standouts to me. Beaumier draws well-deserved applause following her big numbers, like “Maybe This Time” and the title tune; she’s a dynamic performer, although her characterization of Sally when she’s not singing or dancing doesn’t feel unique.
Smaller roles, like the prostitute Fraulein Kost (Abby Church) and the smuggler Ernst Ludwig (Blake Price) turn out to have some pretty significant moments of their own. And the ensemble is one of the strongest I’ve seen lately, whether performing Rhodes’ striking choreography in club numbers (the dancing is exceptional here) or doubling as Berliners caught up in the tide of Nazi fever.
It's all propelled by music director Angela Steiner and her orchestra, who make all those John Kander and Fred Ebb songs, whether humorous or sad, feel fresh and heartfelt as performed by the cast.
Cabaret continues through Dec. 31 at Asolo Rep; for tickets, call (941) 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.