To fully understand the classic Kander and Ebb musical “Cabaret,” you must first know that the 1966 musical is based on the play “I Am a Camera,” which is based on Christopher Isherwood’s short novel “Goodbye to Berlin.”
The staging of “Cabaret” playing at the Altria Theater this weekend is itself the touring version of Roundabout Theatre Company’s Tony-winning revival of stage and screen director Sam Mendes’ 1998 revival of the musical. Like so many copies of a copy, you’d think the story would dim with each reinvention, but with this telling, it certainly retains its power.
The plot of the musical remains the same: Taking place in Weimar Germany, every day is a celebration, especially in the sleazy confines of the Kit Kat Klub cabaret. We enter this world through the eyes of American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Carl Pariso), who develops an attraction to British cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Bailey McCall Thomas). As the Nazi party grows in power, and continues to invade people’s everyday lives, we get a compelling view of what it’s like to live through these developments. As this takes place, Cliff and Sally run up against their own problems.
Well-staged and playing up the seediness of the show’s environs, this “Cabaret” is a faithful retelling of the musical, wowing with its fan-favorites like “Willkommen,” “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” Pariso and Thomas do well, bringing to life the relationship that later supposedly spawned the Fred-Holly Golightly relationship from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”; Erik Schneider brings a sardonic presence as the Emcee. As always, the emotional center of the story is the older couple Fraulein Schneider (Audrey Federici) and Herr Schultz (Fred Frabotta), and the performers don’t disappoint.
Other reviewers have criticized Mendes’ more sour staging of the tale, especially in regards to the Emcee. While Joel Grey’s famous stage and film versions of the Emcee invoked a kind of demented glee at human frailty and the darkness of the world, this incarnation is a knowing, pissed off Emcee.
While it wasn’t the case when it was first staged, its hard to see this show and not feel like it hasn’t taken on special meaning in the era of Trump. Here in Richmond, a place where neo-Nazis marched in the streets just half a year ago, it’s hard not to walk away with a lesson for our time.
“Cabaret” plays through Feb. 25 at the Altria Theater, 6 N. Laurel St. For more information, visit altriatheater.com.