Keegan Theatre’s “Cabaret” conjures the musical in miniature, and it proves an intimate, emotionally involving but by no means slick rendition. The rough brick walls and creaky seats of its Church Street space help with the musical’s setting — decadent Berlin in the early 1930s as embodied in the sleazy Kit Kat Club and a shabby boardinghouse.
The show takes you there, thanks to solid singing and acting by all the key players and a consistency of tone among the whole cast. They break little new ground, but co-directors and company members Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti capably put up Keegan’s intimate version of the 1998 Broadway revival. That raunchier re-imagining by directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall starred Alan Cumming as a sexually ravenous and androgynous Master of Ceremonies.
At Keegan, Paul Scanlan’s Emcee brings a slightly different edge to the proceedings because the actor is a bigger, fleshier fellow than Cumming or Joel Grey, who originated the role. Bare-chested except for crossed suspenders, made up in whiteface with arched brows, Scanlan’s more imposing Emcee can be downright menacing. His physicality works especially well in Act 2, as the Nazis gain influence and he echoes their rise. He sings with assured power, too, and it pays off in a number such as “Money (Makes the World Go Round).”
But the heart of the story belongs to the least flamboyant character — the young American writer Clifford Bradshaw, new in Berlin and looking for inspiration. Bradley Foster Smith as Clifford shows a fine blend of shy tenderness and, when necessary, anger. It all unfolds through Cliff’s eyes. His misadventures with the Kit Kat’s gin-soaked headliner Sally Bowles (Maria Rizzo), with his own sexuality, with the emerging Nazi Party, with the residents in the boardinghouse of Fraulein Schneider (Jane Petkofsky) — all these snapshots eventually reveal to him the coming apocalypse.
The unstable, promiscuous and broke Sally meets Clifford at the Kit Kat and moves uninvited into his room at Fraulein Schneider’s. She attracts him despite her self-destructive ways and his own history with men. Rizzo’s Sally has the voice and the acting skills to belt the famous title song and still make it wholly convincing as Sally’s breakdown moment. She also has the dance moves to sell naughty numbers like “Don’t Tell Mama.”
Stan Shulman and Petkofsky do graceful work as the Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz and the non-Jewish landlady Fraulein Schneider. They make their slower love songs and even their awkwardly written dialogue work. You worry about these older lovers in the shadow of the Nazis’ rise.
The raunch factor of the 1998 staging feels a little forced at Keegan — lots of crotch-grabbing and pelvic thrusts. The intimacy of the space may account for some of that. The stage offers little room for choreography, but the tiny ensemble of singer/dancers gambol saucily in Shadia Hafiz’s assemblages of 1930s lingerie. The small orchestra achieves a brassy, tinny sound that is Kit-Kat appropriate under John-Michael d’Haviland’s baton.
You expect a ragged vibe in “Cabaret,” and Keegan gives it to you — with feeling.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.