It’s remarkable how bleak and yet so spirit-lifting “Cabaret” can be, all at once. Boasting John Kander and Fred Ebb’s richest score and an ingenious hall-of-mirrors storytelling structure by Joe Masteroff, the 1966 show easily qualifies as one of the best political musicals ever made — maybe even one of the greatest musicals, period.
Marred only by the overwrought contemporary conviction that “Cabaret” has to club an audience over the head with its moral weight, Signature Theatre’s revival is a lovely rendition of this oft-produced work. The production is distinguished by the (mostly) finely tooled guidance of director and choreographer Matthew Gardiner and several compelling performances, among them by Wesley Taylor, as the ferally demonic Emcee; Barrett Wilbert Weed as willfully frivolous Sally Bowles and Gregory Wooddell, playing Cliff, the shy American writer who finds his voice in prewar Berlin.
The revival’s heart beats especially tenderly, courtesy of the superb contributions of two fine stage veterans, Rick Foucheux and Naomi Jacobson. They are the Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider of this production, the older couple — he a Jew, she not — whose romance falls prey to the anti-Semitism fomented by a dangerous movement on the rise. The story of Schultz and Schneider carries its own potential hazard, of plunging “Cabaret” into a vat of sugar-laden syrup. But the admirably restrained work here of Foucheux and Jacobson not only skirts the more cloying possibilities, it also ensures that we experience fully the force of the show’s poignant authority.
That this is so essential becomes clear in the production’s Act 1 finale, when the couple’s friends gather in Schultz’s fruit shop to celebrate the engagement. Among the guests are the Nazi sympathizer Ernst (a sterling Bobby Smith) and Fraulein Kost (the smashing Maria Rizzo), a lady of the night, who together break into the terrifyingly jingoistic beer-hall anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” The song was a highlight of the 1972 movie version that earned director Bob Fosse an Oscar and remains the musical’s definitive version.
As the partygoers chime in with pride — a chorus of clueless nationalism — Foucheux’s Schultz stands slightly apart and looks away. In the onrush of the crowd’s exasperating adrenaline, you sense potently the character’s ambivalence, his understanding that he can’t share the exuberance, as well as his wish that the moment, like the movement, will pass.
The scene crowns Gardiner’s splendid first act, which opens with a marvelously high-energy “Willkommen,” the song that welcomes us into the naughty confines of the Kit Kat Klub, presided over, of course, by the Emcee. (As is the recent tradition with “Cabaret,” Signature devotes a large area of the orchestra to nightclub-table seating.) Decked out (thanks to designer Frank Labovitz) in what appear to be lederhosen for the S&M set, Taylor’s Emcee looks like a sinister outcast from the von Trapp family. The performance descends — and, um, deviates — from the work in the role of both Joel Grey and Alan Cumming, and it is a satisfyingly stylized counterpoint to the well-rounded naturalistic turns by the rest of the cast.
That would include the production’s Sally, whom Weed plays as a blithe English good- time gal (with a great set of pipes). The permanent laugh in her throat reminds us that Sally is incapable of taking anything seriously, least of all herself. As the embodiment of a certain callous disregard for the truly monstrous things happening around her in Berlin, Weed’s work here more than does the trick, and her putting across of the title song — an ironic masterpiece — is the vibrant statement the audience is dearly anticipating.
Her delivery leavens a second act that veers too stridently into the darkness. Kander and Ebb knew exactly what they were doing when they shot through the Kit Kat Klub songs with vinegar. We don’t need extra help with the underlying significance or double meanings of numbers such as “The Money Song” and “Two Ladies.” So when Gardiner injects additional editorializing into the mocking anti-Semitism of “If You Could See Her,” it feels as superfluous as some of the commentary director Sam Mendes needlessly appended, too, to his long-running Broadway revival, with Cumming.
These are mostly errors of earnestness, however; the evening’s entertainment value never flags. On Misha Kachman’s nightclub set, with metallic curtains and a long runway bisecting the theater, Gardiner maneuvers his actors and dancers fleetly, on the show’s grand and tragic march from the two-step to the goose-step.
Book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Lane Elms; wigs, Anne Nesmith; dialects, Leigh Wilson Smiley. With Jamie Eacker, Kurt Boehm, Shayna Blass. About 2