THEATER REVIEW: Arden Theatre stages a ‘Cabaret’ for our time

The cast of “Cabaret” with John Jarboe, center, as the Emcee. The production is at Arden Theatre through Oct. 21. For information, check www.ardentheatre.org.
The cast of “Cabaret” with John Jarboe, center, as the Emcee. The production is at Arden Theatre through Oct. 21. For information, check www.ardentheatre.org. PHOTO BY MARK GARVIN

IF YOU GO

Cabaret will be performed at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street in Philadelphia through Oct. 22. For tickets call 215-922-1122 or go to www.ardentheatre.org

“Meine damen und herren, willkommen!” The smirking, slinky Emcee purrs the familiar greeting from center stage and the audience is back at the Kit Kat Klub in 1929 Berlin. Once again, as spot lights whirl and a chorus line in various stages of undress marches forward, “es ist zeit für ‘Kabarett!’”

The Arden Theatre in Philadelphia chose “Cabaret” to lead off its 30th anniversary season and Barrymore Award winning director Matthew Decker and his multitalented cast quickly make it clear that current national politics will inform and engage this Kabarett of flashy costuming, joyous sin, sarcasm and sexual ambiguity. Prepare to get up close and personal with Emcee and the chorus line — regardless of where you sit for this show; and if the story of “Cabaret” wasn’t example enough, be ready at intermission to hear some parallels between Weimar and our current political circus.

Of course, it’s probably impossible to stage an apolitical “Cabaret.” A greying but flamboyant survivor of the 1960’s, this iconic musical has (if measured by total stage performances) outlasted both the post World War I Weimar Republic in which it was set and the Nazi regime it presaged.

With music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the adaptation by Philadelphia native Joe Masteroff of John Van Druten’s play transformed Christopher Isherwood’s original stories about the mercurial 1930’s Berlin cabaret singer Sally Bowles and her neighbors into a star-making vehicle for Liza Minnelli, Joel Gray, Bob Fosse and many others.

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“Cabaret’s” journey from story to stage was longer than Sally’s feather boa. The show’s longevity resides in the evocative, provocative music and a straightforward tale of delicious excess that directors and actors can consistently reimagine to evoke a time and place of revolutionary freedom, fear and folly. The Arden production uses a 1998 script from the Roundabout Theatre that makes the Kit Kat Klub the centerpiece of the action and the growing Nazi menace more palpable.

Yet the Arden production is also a somewhat soft-focus “Cabaret,” as were some of the other recent revivals. The singers are strident but not shrill, their sexuality playful not raw, the performers’ moods less overtly cynical, perhaps harking back to the naturalism of Isherwood’s Berlin stories, with the author simply observing and recording a diverse group of city folk trapped in a stretch of dark history. Or perhaps the director and cast understand that stressed audiences these days want a touch of loving kindness even as the tramp of jackboots and martial music grows closer.

John Jarboe is nothing less than a revelation as the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, leading Sally and a chorus line of sexually ambiguous dancers through the famous lineup of songs. Well known to local audiences for his work as artistic director of “The Bearded Ladies Cabaret,” on this intimate set with a few small tables arranged around a thrust stage he is a magnetic presence as he prowls and caresses the audience like a big cat seeking a warm lap, then leaps onstage to lead the chorus in rousing hits such as “Wilkommen” “Money” and “If You Could See Her” — songs that lead to standing ovations from audiences at the finale.

Charissa Hogeland almost single-handedly brings back to vibrant life the simple but ambitious, stage-struck and slightly bruised English rose Sally Bowles after she’d been fixed for so long in the public’s mind as the noisy runaway train depicted by Liza Minnelli in the film version of “Cabaret.” Hogeland’s Sally is sensual and silly, daring and duplicitous but always and forever present in the moment and heedless of the future, much like German culture itself between the wars.

The Arden production leaves some space for Sally’s mostly forgettable on-off romance with the American writer Clifford Bradshaw (played by Daniel Fredrick) who comes to Berlin for literary experience and gets more than he bargained for, but more importantly does not neglect the charming, invigorating and ultimately tragic romance between the unlikely older couple Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Peoples Light and Theater company member Mary Elizabeth Scallen and Arden veteran Kenny Morris give nuanced and moving performances as two ordinary Germans – a long suffering landlady and a Jewish fruit vendor – who find common ground, romance and eventual dissolution as society collapses around them.

What a pleasure to hear great live music in an intimate theatrical venue! What would a Kabarett be without it? The recreation of the Klub performances are enormously enhanced by Alex Bechtel’s skillful, jazzy live orchestra playing from its lofty perch above the Klub. David Gordon’s big but accessible set, placing the music above and the audience below focuses attention on the stage performers where it belongs but allows multiple points of access for the cast to come and go.

The economic crisis, political storms and sexual/social revolution that occurred in Germany between the wars seems far away. But consider. The elected Weimar government was unstable and widely despised by much of the public. Far left and far right parties were demonstrating and fighting in the streets. Health and unemployment insurance, education, veteran’s benefits and wage equity were hotly debated. New technology was eliminating traditional jobs. History never repeats exactly. But it offers harsh lessons for those willing to listen.

IF YOU GO

Cabaret will be performed at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street in Philadelphia through Oct. 22. For tickets call 215-922-1122 or go to www.ardentheatre.org