Set in a sleazy Berlin nightclub between the two World Wars, "Cabaret" has always been a dark musical. But director Sam Mendes' interpretation is more than dark, it's dangerous - and thrilling.
If director Harold Prince's original 1966 version hovered on the edge of explicit sexual, social and political commentary, Mendes' version, playing a two-week run at the Mechanic Theatre, dares to go over the edge, hanging on by its luridly polished fingernails.
The result is, quite simply, sensational - in every meaning of the word.
The musical's creators - book writer Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb - devised the show so that the numbers performed in the cabaret, called the Kit Kat Klub, comment on the story taking place outside. Actually, there are two stories, both romances.
The first concerns a fledgling American novelist named Clifford Bradshaw (modeled after Christopher Isherwood, whose "Berlin Stories" partly inspired the musical) and his relationship with Sally Bowles, the British star of the Kit Kat Klub.
Cliff is, by definition, a foil for the outrageous characters around him, which makes this a fairly thankless, colorless role. Still, Jay Goede eventually gives him a tinge of harshness, undoubtedly brought on by the cold-bloodedness he has experienced in Berlin.
While Cliff is tougher than usual, LeaThompson's Sally Bowles has more innocence, increasing the audience's sympathy for this desperate young woman who's so determined to live life at its most decadent extremes that she's nearly lost the ability to love.
Although Sally is hardly supposed to be a proficient singer, Thompson has a good, clear voice, fully capable of belting when the music demands it. She is especially good at conveying the multiple layers of a number such as, "Maybe This Time," which is presented in the context of a Kit Kat Klub performance, but actually represents Sally's inner thoughts about settling down with Cliff.
The show's second romance is between senior citizens - Cliff's landlady, FrM-dulein Schneider (warmly played by the honey-voiced Alma Cuervo) and Herr Schultz, the Jewish owner of a fruit shop (Hal Robinson). This relationship was left out of Bob Fosse's extraordinary 1972 movie, but its sweetness not only contrasts with the younger couple's more tumultuous affair, it also offers our first view of the encroaching Nazi threat.
All of this is knitted together by the Kit Kat Klub's Emcee,memorably created by Joel Grey as an androgynous imp, but played here by JonPeterson as blatantly, indiscriminately sexual. Bare-chested and tattooed, with his hair in Medusa-like spikes, he is the pelvis-thrusting, crotch-grabbing incarnation of lasciviousness.
In this production he serves as a kind of malevolent puppet master, though in the end we discover that he, too, has strings that can be cut.
Mendes, the Academy Award-winning director of "American Beauty," and his co-director and choreographer, Rob Marshall, use the Emcee to further integrate the show's performance pieces and the plot. Peterson lurks on the periphery of scene after scene, taunting, teasing and urging the action along.
For example, when Schultz and Schneider sing "It Couldn't Please Me More," after he presents her with the exotic luxury of a pineapple, they hand the pineapple to the Emcee and their song becomes a mini-Kit Kat production number with pineapples as props. And, after Cliff agrees to smuggle contraband into Germany for fast cash, the Emcee leads the song, "Money" in the Klub, with Cliff and his smuggled briefcase weaving in and out of the number.
Mendes devised his London and New York productions to be performed in working cabarets, a configuration that didn't lend itself to the road. Incorporating the audience into the setting must have been overwhelmingly powerful since the show makes you squirm even from the safe distance of a theater seat. (And be warned - this shamelessly rude and raunchy musical is not for children; in addition to their tattoos, the Kit Kat Girls are amply adorned with bruises, and they didn't get them playing softball.)
When "Cabaret" opened in 1966, the final line of the love song, "If You Could See Her (Through My Eyes)," sung by the Emcee to a gorilla, was softened during previews. It's still a chilling lyric, but the thought of cutting it probably didn't even come up this time around.
That could mean audiences are more sophisticated, but instead, I suspect we're just harder to shock. All the more impressive then, that this production has found a way to shock, startle and entertain a whole new audience. By all means, "Come to the cabaret."
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. June 18; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and June 18, 3 p.m. June 11. Through June 18