Slyly seductive and vigorously distracting, “Cabaret” keeps you enthralled while the world goes to hell.
Set in 1929 and ’30, the show captures the jittery throb of Germany’s fragile, fractious but richly creative Weimar era as its brief existence got crushed in the Great Depression and indignant nationalism congealed into Nazism.
Dark to begin with, the 1966 musical grew still inkier with Sam Mendes’ mid-1990s revival. In that vein, a gripping — if vocally rough-edged — production by Celebration Theatre continues.
Michael Matthews, one of the city’s more imaginative directors, makes the darkness literal, enticing the audience into the seedy almost-elegance of a Berlin nightclub where anything could happen in the shadows. What might lurk there quickly goes from titillating to chilling.
But, hey, there’s a party going on. What good is sitting alone in your room?
Audience members enter into a violet haze of smoke that is punctuated by starbursts of white cabaret lights framing the stage and lining the room (scenic design by Stephen Gifford, lights by Matthew Brian Denman). Dark wallpaper and dimly glittering chandeliers enfold the room’s tiered seats, erasing any divide between viewer and stage.
Metaphorically, the nightclub is Germany at the time — or, at least, as it might seem to a young, foreign writer in search of adventure, in keeping with the story’s roots in British writer Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical Berlin tales. Presiding over the nightly party is an emcee who is seductive, slightly ominous and, in this version, almost magical. As portrayed by Alex Nee, he seems to embody the Weimar Republic in its death gasps, his breathtakingly inventive performances turning flippantly angry and his behavior growing zombie-like as things deteriorate.
The writer, an American named Cliff, comes across in Christopher Maikish’s portrayal as earnest and endearingly stuffy. He rents a room from Frau Schneider, who is Germany at its most humane, a bit set in her ways but open to new people and experiences. One light in the darkness is the later-life romance between June Carryl’s Frau Schneider and Matthew Henerson’s Herr Schultz, a gentlemanly Jewish grocer whose presence invariably turns her young and giddy again. As their future turns impossible, the audience grows sniffly.
And then, of course, there is Sally, the nightclub’s chanteuse of the moment, so indelibly portrayed in the 1972 movie by Liza Minnelli. Her come-what-may, sexually adventurous existence reaches a crossroads in her relationship with tender, genuine Cliff — a dilemma that plays out with palpable ache in Talisa Friedman’s performance.
Diverting us from the ugliness festering beyond the nightclub’s doors are floor shows that, as choreographed by Janet Roston, entice with thrusts, grinds and even a bit of pole dancing, not to mention a Kama Sutra’s worth of sexual positions. Michael Mullen’s costumes put the pansexual dancers in everything from brazen lingerie to innocent school uniforms, while keeping Cliff trussed in an uptight bow tie.
So masterfully assembled was this musical — by producer-director Hal Prince, librettist Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb — that it’s ready to offer up fresh nuances in each staging.
One drawback to Matthews’ approach is that it’s so dark from the start that we don’t feel the vertiginous descent that should take place in the second act.
Then there’s the performance of the endlessly clever score, with its blend of rustic German music hall and glossy Broadway sounds. The band is terrific, delivering such a jazzy, complex sound that it seems impossible it’s made by just four instrumentalists, led from the keyboard by Anthony Zediker.
But many of the vocals are pitch-challenged bellows, notable more for enthusiasm than pleasantness. Sally might be characterized as having more moxie than talent, and the non-nightclub characters are just ordinary people, but still, our ears crave more.
At show’s end, Matthews comes up with his own way to link the history we’ve been watching to events today. Too much or just right? You decide.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Celebration at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Aug. 5
Info: (323) 957-1884; www.celebrationtheatre.com
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes