Little Theatre of Alexandria begins its 70th season with a stunning staging of a classic show that thoroughly satisfies as theater and that the director hopes will heighten political awareness.
Whether "Cabaret" succeeds as a contemporary political statement depends heavily on one's views of current events, but it certainly provides an intoxicating and chilling glimpse into a time and place within an entertaining framework.
Director Frank D. Shutts II chose the recent revival version of the John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) musical, with story by Joe Masteroff. It's sleeker and darker than the original 1966 Broadway show or the 1972 film.
Several songs deemed unnecessary for the story line or the message about the penalties of indifference have been trimmed. The expressive music is solidly linked to vividly provoked emotions.
"Cabaret" ostensibly tells the story of the doomed romance between an American writer and a second-rate English music hall performer in Berlin in 1930, when a crumbling and decadent society provided fertile ground for the gathering Nazi menace. The chronicle is really an examination of the all-too-human tendency to ignore looming danger or an ugly truth until it is too late, both on a personal and a societal level.
This production grabs the audience by the scruff of its collective neck from the first notes of the energetic opening number, the familiar and elongated "Willkommen," and holds it firmly through 17 songs and the rise of the Third Reich until the final stark and unsettling moments before the curtain closes. Along the way, the audience is carefully transported back and forth between edgy and exhilarating musical scenes in the Kit Kat Klub, where omnivorous sexuality is celebrated, and quiet moments in which tender and troubled love are played out against a backdrop of mounting political and social anxiety.
Shutts pulls no punches, allowing the raunchy production numbers to generate all the steam they can, while cultivating sensitive and thoroughly nuanced performances in several love stories.
Doug Sanford sets the pace as the androgynous, cynical Emcee. Sanford creates a potent satyr, rather than Joel Grey's familiar waif-like characterization, resulting in a charged atmosphere that energizes the Kit Kat Klub denizens.
He is brassy where needed, such as in the wickedly pointed "Money," but he also subtly pinpoints the disturbing emotions at the core of the intense "I Don't Care Much."
As chanteuse Sally Bowles, Karen Jadlos Shotts convincingly creates a portrait of a woman wearying of life, unable to realistically face the world.
When she sings the iconic "Cabaret," it is not an expression of joy (as Liza Minnelli would belt it) but, rather, a plaintive cry of desperation from a woman coming to grips with disillusionment.
It is a difficult challenge, as Shotts maintains a balance between remaining true to a character who doesn't sing all that well while still captivating the audience.
She manages to retain the character's understated English accent while singing, her voice smoky and slightly flat.
Chameleon-like actor Tom Flatt is Herr Schultz, the mild-mannered Jewish grocer who tries not to acknowledge the creeping anti-Semitism even as it begins to crush his life. Flatt strains to hit the tenor notes in the tender "Married," but his portrayal of Schultz remains remarkably poignant.
There are quite a few musical highlights, including Juan Rodriguez's stirring a capella performance of the poetic ballad "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," which leads to the disturbingly affecting Nazi anthem, "Vaterland."
Amy Carson's choreography is expressive and sexually charged, performed flawlessly by an energetic ensemble and accompanied by Christopher A. Tomasino's lively band.
The eyes, the ears and the mind all are satisfied in this compelling and challenging production.
"Cabaret," performed by Little Theatre of Alexandria, concludes this weekend at 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria. Showtime is 8 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday. For tickets or information, call the box office at 703-683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.