The original Tony-winning stage version of “Cabaret” is quite a bit darker, meaner and more desperate than the glossy, giddy Oscar-winning 1972 movie version that prided itself on being “delightfully decadent” as self-indulgent 1930s Berliners play while the Nazis creep and claw their way into power.
The stage revival now at Wichita’s Forum Theatre, directed by Kathryn Page Hauptman, seeks to meld the best of the stage and movie versions. But preserving the social and political gravitas of the former comes at the expense of some of the naughty fun of the latter.
There are a couple of real shocks, emotional jolts that stun audience members into silence, making them unsure whether to applaud for fear it might be unseemly.
For example, the famous show-stopping title tune becomes a portrait of an emotionally scarred young woman going through a mental breakdown in public rather than a sadder-but-wiser girl flinging propriety to the wind and deciding to live for the moment. Too, the Act I finale — “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — as the Nazis smell victory, is downright scary rather than stirring.
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And the stage finale (not done for the movie) is a shocking revelation of what can happen to self-centered Everyman when he fails to pay attention or get involved.
Crafted by John Kander (a Kansas City native) and Fred Ebb from Christopher Isherwood’s short novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” “Cabaret” tells of Cliff, an eager American writer who comes to Berlin for story inspiration and runs into quirky British expatriate Sally Bowles, working as a singer in the sleazy Kit Kat Klub. She becomes his entry into an exciting but unsettling world of glittery excess, sexual abandon and political horror.
John Keckeisen, a two-summer veteran of Music Theatre of Wichita’s resident company, plays Cliff with the curious but quiet intensity of a literary observer rather than a nosy journalist. Keckeisen has a solid singing voice, but Cliff is a mostly non-musical role except for the haunting “Don’t Go” as he pleads with Sally. Keckeisen turns it into a memorable moment.
Allison Nock (Crown Uptown’s “A Chorus Line,” “White Christmas”) plays the irrepressible songbird Sally, who never looks before she leaps into relationships. Nock has perky charm to spare but has a little trouble keeping track of her British accent.
But Nock, well, knocks it out of the park with her musical numbers, like the feisty “Don’t Tell Mama,” the sexy “Mein Herr” and the wistfully poignant “Maybe This Time.” Her climactic “Cabaret” is a riveting, if a bit overwrought, moment that is disturbing and tragic rather than defiantly hedonistic.
In the flashiest performance, longtime Mosley Street Melodrama actor Steven Hitchcock plays against his usual good-guy image to become the malevolently mischievous Emcee of the nightclub where Sally works. With mascara-heavy eyes and a permanent sneer on his painted lips, Hitchcock acts as the deliciously disreputable intermediary between the show and the show-within-the-show.
The musical numbers in the Kit Kat Klub are satirical allegories for what’s happening in the real world outside.
From the jazzy “Willkommen (Welcome)” to the slapstick “Two Ladies” to the sweet but shocking “If You Could See Her,” Hitchcock raises eyebrows and lowers the boom with his cunning exhibitionism — well-abetted by a chorus line of uber-sexual Kit Kat Klub girls choreographed and led by Meg Parsley.
In minor but affecting roles, Patty Reeder and Dan E. Campbell play a middle-aged couple — he’s Jewish, she’s not — whose romance is doomed by the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism. Reeder has a warm, mature voice that lends poignancy to “What Would You Do?” And Campbell gives a gentle sweetness to his forbidden wish to be “Married.” Both are charmingly fun in their romantic duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More (The Pineapple Song).”
The two-story set designed by Ben Juhnke features a large turntable that acts as the Kit Kat Klub stage, then turns (sometimes a bit awkwardly because of a curtain backdrop) to bring in different props to create locations from a boarding house to a fruit shop to a train station. There also is a fireman’s pole from the top level to the stage, but it’s surprisingly underused — almost as an afterthought.
The costumes, designed by Page Hauptman, are colorfully tawdry and eye-catching. The orchestra, lead by Tim Raymond on rinky-tink keyboards, does full justice to the bouncy, brassy, sassy score.
Opening night suffered from a number of late (or missed) lighting cues and sound problems, giving the performance a dress rehearsal feel. And performers seemed a little tentative at the beginning. It was almost as if the show were an old-fashioned vinyl record starting up after a blackout and gradually reaching playing speed.