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Theater review:

National tour of revelatory 'Cabaret' revival heats up the Hippodrome

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Current politics make the "Cabaret" revival at the Hippodrome seem even more telling (or scary).

There was a strange moment at the Hippodrome Theatre during Tuesday's opening night performance of "Cabaret," the 1966 musical set in determinedly decadent Berlin during the wane of the Weimar Republic and the relentless rise of the Nazis.

In Act 2 of this justly celebrated, revelatory revival from Roundabout Theatre Company, a brick crashes into a Jewish grocer's shop. Some folks in the audience laughed heartily at that sight, a reaction as chilling as what just happened onstage.

Laughter broke out again from the same part of the room when the Emcee, the pivotal character in "Cabaret," staggered across the stage in disheveled drag, each heavy step seeming to reflect an unstoppable descent into a world that had shifted from fun and forgiving to frightening and fatal.

I have no idea why anyone thought such scenes were funny. Nervous laughter? Inebriation? Plain old uncouth manners? But something about this odd experience (presumably a one-time thing) proved fitting, underlining what "Cabaret" is all about — how people can be blind to the what's really happening around them. 

With a book by Joe Masteroff, based on writings of Christopher Isherwood and an Isherwood-inspired play by John Van Druten, this musical evokes the Weimar scene in deft strokes, aided at every turn by Fred Ebb's incisive lyrics and John Kander's brilliant music.

The Roundabout staging, originally directed in 1998 by Sam Mendes and co-directed/choreographed by Rob Marshall, gives every element — light and dark — in the show an extra charge.

The raunchy quotient, always a part of "Cabaret," is beefed up considerably, but all in keeping with what can be gleaned from histories and memoirs of Berlin in the late 1920s and early '30s.

And even though you know from the get-go that this city of free (and paid) love, drugs and dreams is already infested with Nazis, the production succeeds at making their eventual appearance freshly surprising. Note, for example, the way that silently dancing couples suddenly start stomping their feet the moment a swastika first appears. 

The final few moments of the staging involve a coup de theatre that, in a flash, sums up everything on and beneath the surface of "Cabaret" to stark, stunning effect. You won't get that parting image out of your mind quickly.

It's hard to imagine a more compelling concept will come along anytime soon. No wonder Roundabout revived their revival in 2013 and subsequently sent it out on tour (the traveling production is fluently directed by BT McNicholl).

The current cast would be pretty hard to beat, too. Randy Harrison excels as the ubiquitous Emcee. This star of the much-acclaimed Showtime series "Queer as Folk" inhabits the character, whether stirring things up at the ever-happening Kit Kat Club or keeping an eye on the characters whose relationships propel the plot.

Harrison acts up a storm and also performs his vocal numbers stylishly, nowhere more so than in the cynical "I Don't Care Much" (a strong song cut from the original 1966 show and reinstated by Mendes). He even carries out an unnecessary bit of audience participation with aplomb.

Andrea Goss is a vibrant, nuanced Sally Bowles, the British entertainer who succumbs to Berlin's wild ways and the charms of an American visitor.

There's an affecting, Bernadette Peters-like vibrancy and expressive nuance in Goss' singing,  especially in "Maybe This Time" (interpolated from the 1972 film version of "Cabaret"). She also tears into the musical's title song with terrific intensity.    

Lee Aaron Rosen does sensitive, sympathetic work as Clifford Bradshaw, the budding writer fresh from Pennsylvania who is soon caught up in a whirl of sensuality and danger.  

Two of the show's essential characters (excised from the movie) could not be more beautifully acted, their music more eloquently sung, than they are here — by Shannon Cochran as landlady Fraulein Schneider, and Mark Nelson as Herr Schultz, the grocer convinced the Nazi threat will fade.

The strengths continue throughout the ensemble; the actors also double as musicians, filling out in the snappy band perched on a platform above the stage (Michael Gibson's orchestrations are spot-on). 

One recorded voice makes a chilling appearance — a boy soprano (Alex Bowen), heard on a phonograph warbling the innocent-sounding "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," later revealed to be a menacing anthem.

Superbly costumed (William Ivey Long) and played out on a spare, but fully atmospheric set (Robert Brill), the musical feels doubly meaningful, given the politics and tone of today, with the fresh efforts to single out ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation. Life is a cabaret, all right, but, as this production so powerfully reminds us, your table may not always be waiting.

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If you go

"Cabaret" runs through Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.

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