Perhaps I'm a cultural ignoramus, but I'd never seen "Cabaret," neither the 1972 movie version nor any stage production, before taking in the Richmond Triangle Players' salacious, vibrant and powerful staging of the celebrated Kander and Ebb musical. That may be why I'm befuddled by the clanging tonal contrasts between the story's main threads.
I am, that is, until the Emcee (Chris Hester) launches into a haunting rendition of "I Don't Care Much" in the second act. Before that, the character of the Emcee is just a cartoonish scamp presiding over the overt pansexuality of the Kit Kat Klub, a hedonistic nightspot in a Berlin on the verge of falling into Nazi dominance. But with such lyrics as "Hearts grow hard on a windy street / lips grow cold with the rent to meet," the song not only humanizes the Emcee in an ironic way but also explains how emotions give way to practicality — a dynamic that plays out in the show's other plotlines.
One involves a budding young novelist from America, Cliff (Stevie Rice), arriving in Berlin and being seduced by British chanteuse, Sally Bowles (Nicole Foret Oberleitner). The other features Cliff's aging landlord, Fraulein Schneider (Jeanie Rule), who's courted by Herr Schultz (Doug Schneider), a Jewish fruit peddler. The older affair is quietly charming, the younger one profoundly quirky, making them both that much more endearing and ultimately that much more tragic.
Rule displays formidable talent in this show, crosscurrents of emotion playing out clearly on her face and in her expressive voice. She shares a winning chemistry with Schneider who hits all the right notes in his sweet and earnest romantic pursuit. Rice and Oberleitner prove a more problematic pair, Rice's Cliff appearing feckless in contrast to the overbearing force that is Oberleitner's Sally. But both performances shore up convincingly as their characters' situation gets more urgent. While it's difficult to judge Oberleitner's "Maybe This Time," given the song's delivery by other notables, her "Cabaret" perfectly captures the song's bittersweet undertone.
Backing up Hester's Emcee is an impressive chorus of Kit Kat boys and girls who ooze sexuality all over mischievous songs such as "Money (Makes the World Go Around)" and the playfully polyamorous "Two Ladies." Handsome Evan Nasteff plays Ernst Ludwig, Cliff's first friend and ultimate enemy, with a straightforward charisma that takes a brutal turn.
Musical director Kim Fox skillfully augments a rock-steady rhythm section with welcome grace notes from clarinet, flute and trumpet. Frank Foster's multilevel set design provides plenty of places for the large cast to spread out. Lighting designer Michael Jarrett enhances the luridness of the Kit Kat Klub while also managing to make it sexy and smoky. Special recognition should be given to sound designer Joey Luck, who shows particular skill in his use of muted nightclub sounds during backstage scenes.
The production's director and choreographer, Penny Ayn Maas, performed in the Studio 54 revival of "Cabaret" and brings an obvious fervor for the show to bear. While the pieces may take a while to fall into place, it's magical when they do. S
"Cabaret" runs through July 5 at the Triangle Players' Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave. For tickets and information call 346-8113 or visit rtriangle.org.