Don’t tell Mama, but the Kit Kat Klub has gained a little class. The central setting and anchoring idea for the musical “Cabaret” still harbors the requisite louche personalities and risque song-and-dance acts. Fishnet-stocking suppliers aren’t hurting for business. But in director Alan Paul’s smart, tangy production at Olney Theatre Center, there’s slightly less of the pointed sleaze that has suffused other iterations of the Weimar Berlin nightspot. It’s a prudent calibration that ultimately reinforces the theme of a society’s disastrous and willful moral myopia.
The production’s attractive scenic and musical conception allows us to feel, rather than simply observe, the lure of that myopia. The fine-sounding orchestra — 11 musicians, including music director Christopher Youstra — basks at center stage, among crystal chandeliers and red-satin-draped music stands. With a harp as an eye-catching presence, the setup evokes cocktail hour in a 1930s movie. (Wilson Chin is the scenic designer.) How tempting it would be to succumb to the elegant diversion and ignore inconvenient truths, namely, the rise of Nazism.
That political development looms throughout the musical, which is based on John Van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera” and stories by Christopher Isherwood. Originally on Broadway in 1966, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff, “Cabaret” depicts American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Gregory Maheu) arriving in Weimar Berlin, where he takes up with the vibrantly dissipated showgirl Sally Bowles (Alexandra Silber). Amid the debauchery of the milieu, ugly incidents presage the Nazi takeover.
Both the decadence and the ominous political and social conditions find expression in the musical’s cabaret acts, performed principally by Sally (the saucy “Don’t Tell Mama,” etc.) and the Kit Kat Klub’s insinuating Emcee (Mason Alexander Park), who concludes “If You Could See Her,” an arch song and pas de deux with a performer in gorilla costume, by noting that, in his eyes, his beloved doesn’t “look Jewish at all.” The Olney production has a major asset in Park’s Emcee, who exudes not only the necessary lewdness, but also a childishness and vulnerability, which adds emotional punch while echoing the sense of a society teetering on the edge. Sporting glitter eye shadow, this Emcee salaciously caresses the harp. He looks downcast when his jokes fizzle. In numbers such as the provocative opener “Willkommen,” he sings in brassy, smoky tones, frequently letting a snarl creep in.
Maheu nails Cliff’s appealing earnestness and fallibility. Silber (Guenevere in Paul’s “Camelot” at Shakespeare Theatre Company) captures Sally’s jittery desperation — as when she invades Cliff’s room and shimmies on his sofa — but her cabaret numbers don’t pop as much as they should.
In a story arc that adds aching poignancy, Donna Migliaccio packs humor and solidity into landlady Fräulein Schneider, who is wooed by Herr Schultz, a gentle Jewish fruit merchant. Mitchell Hébert is marvelously funny and endearing as Schultz, even though his singing is tentative at best.
In other contributions, Tom Story is serviceable as the weaselly Ernst Ludwig; costume designer Kendra Rai revels in the cabaret performers’ outre garb; and orchestra member Andrew Axelrad supplies a golden sax solo. The execution of Katie Spelman’s vamping choreography is often imperfectly synced, although the look arguably suits the seediness more frequently associated with the Kit Kat Klub. A high-kick sequence that turns into a goose-step is one of the rare too-blunt moments in a production that otherwise moves astutely, as well as fluidly.
A simple coup de théâtre in the production’s final moments (no spoilers here) underscores the show’s all-too-timely vision of civic and political blindness. In the audience, we take stock of ourselves. Did we find too much welcome in the “Willkommen”?
Cabaret, book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed by Alan Paul, lighting design, Colin K. Bills; sound, Matt Rowe; wigs, Ali Pohanka. With Connor James Reilly, Andre Hinds, Jessica Lauren Ball, Ben Gunderson and others. About 2½ hours. $42-$84. Through Oct. 6 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.