CABARET by Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb (Shaw Festival). At the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to October 26. $35-$113, stu mat $24. 1-800-511-7429, shawfest.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Put the Shaw Festival's Cabaret on your list of must-see theatre this summer.
Exciting in concept, strongly performed and designed, ultimately chilling, it's the kind of production you won't soon forget.
Based on Christopher Isherwood's experiences in 1929-30 Berlin, the musical looks at the free-spirited city through the eyes of naive writer Cliff Bradshaw (Gray Powell), who gets wrapped up in the world of the racy Kit-Kat Club and its lead singer, Sally Bowles (Deborah Hay), while staying in the rooming house of Fräulein Schneider (Corrine Koslo).
Overseeing and commenting on this giddy world that's rushing toward an apocalypse is the club's Emcee (Juan Chioran), here a puppet master who is sometimes himself the dummy of a larger force.
The writing is fascinating, many of John Kander and Fred Ebb's memorable tunes, staged in the cabaret itself, functioning as commentary on the action outside the club.
Here, director Peter Hinton turns the material darker and colder, and even Denise Clarke's striking choreography has an intentionally brittle edge.
Hinton, who helmed last year's awesomely original take on Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, here makes Chioran's excellent Emcee a figure who is coldly lascivious rather than hotly, comically erotic. Looking like one of Ronnie Burkett's spike-haired marionettes from Tinka's New Dress, Chioran is rarely offstage, observing the action even when he's not taking part in it.
The other key roles are just as ably played. Cliff is often a cipher at the centre of the show, but Powell gives him a charm and a need to succeed as writer and lover that invigorates the role.
Hay's Sally emerges as a wide-eyed, sometimes childlike figure who's never nasty and can herself be wounded. Her rendition of the title song, under the musical direction of Paul Sportelli, is stunning. Usually it's a brash, exuberantly defiant shout at a world in which Sally is determined to survive. Instead, Hay turns it into a play all on its own: Sally starts out shocked with what's happened to her, then hurt and finally angry at where she finds herself.
Koslo gives a heartfelt, memorable performance as the proper but practical Schneider, who becomes involved with Schultz (Benedict Campbell), a shy though affectionate grocer whose background causes problems for the two of them.
Koslo's clear-eyed landlady disapproves of the goings-on of one of her tenants, Fräulein Kost (the fine Jenny L. Wright), who's regularly visited by various male cousins, uncles and friends. Hinton gives the women's relationship an extra dramatic kick by having Kost take revenge on Schneider in a life-changing event that's only one of the production's tragic moments.
The design is as important as the performances, beginning with Michael Gianfrancesco's set, a revolving metal tower whose steps are an interwoven double helix; as soon as you reach its peak you start to descend, moving from the success of the summit to the despair of a plunge into the depths in a few steps. It's a neat image for the hopes of the characters, and Hinton's use of the turntable offers a fascinating way of blending stories, creating striking internal monologues and segueing quickly from one character to another. It also becomes a vortex, sucking the characters into a hellish world.
Judith Bowden's costumes portray a world of sad clowns and rouged chorus members, while Bonnie Beecher's sharp lighting helps draw us into a story that ends in tones of red and black, the colours of a Nazi swastika armband.
Not every directorial choice works. For instance, the song It Couldn't Please Me More, in which Schultz presents a gift to Fräulein Schneider, is about simplicity; to turn it into a Busby Berkeley moment, complete with chorus, is too much.
But those moments are rare. Come to this Cabaret and experience a bold and vivid take on a classic musical.