“Cabaret” has been around a long time — seemingly, in one way or another, for some of us, almost all our lives. It’s like a turned-out mutt, engaging, insistent, a little raggedy at the edges. But it’s a knowing pup. It looks like it just got rescued from the pound and is practically right at home in the world we live in today, no matter where you live.
This is perhaps especially true for the production now at the Olney Theatre Center, running through Oct. 6. It’s directed with jazz-matazz, great heart and theatrical empathy by Alan Paul, who’s been showing off his gifts with musicals all over the D.C. area, at Signature Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Arena Stage.
“Cabaret” keeps coming back at you in different forms. The 1951 straight play “I Am a Camera,” with theater legend Julie Harris, was based on stories and a novel by Christopher Isherwood. The Kander and Ebb musical, directed by Harold Prince, opened on Broadway in 1966, recreating the dazzling and corrupt Berlin of the waning days of the Weimar Republic, with the ominous and pervasive rise of the Nazis.
Bob Fosse’s Oscar-rich movie version of 1972, starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, made the characters and the songs widely known. Since then, the stage musical has been revived, reimagined and re-styled in various ways. Though it’s set in the late 1920s and 1930s, the show comes back fresh, always in the here and now, always disturbingly entertaining as music and powerful drama.
In short, this puppy has a pedigree, a rich one, no matter how it’s decked out, but it rings most true on the stage (whatever the superb dazzle supplied by Fosse).
Stage productions of “Cabaret” always change, every time out. We saw this production at a matinee at Olney, where the audience tended to be older, but was nonetheless fully engaged and moved. Let’s face it, there isn’t a sentimental note in the show or this production — no begging for a pat on the head. “Cabaret” bites hard at the heart until it hurts, but there are no cheap tears.
I’ve seen it in a hardscrabble and long-gone bar in downtown Washington, where brownshirts pounded at the windows outside during intermission; at the Kennedy Center, where the gaudy and insinuating Grey led a swastika chorus line; and at the Warner Theatre with a new emcee in charge, a pin in his nose, a leather vest on his naked chest. In that production, Sally Bowles — not quite broken, cashing in her chips and mink coat — was played by a television star.
This production may be one of the best yet, all the more pertinent and impertinent for bringing Weimar Berlin to Olney’s bucolic setting.
For that you can thank Paul and set designer Wilson Chin, who’s turned the stage into a combination of a recital and a vaudeville show. This cabaret is a place where the familiar, the dangerous and the lewd fight for attention, with the ringmaster-emcee leading the charge, diving into the chorus line of girls and boys — one is never sure — to create an atmosphere of unsettlement, uncertainty and honest longing, impeded at every turn.
Along with the emcee, the leader of the pack, here you find Sally Bowles, fast-talking, sexy in an offhand way. Here’s Clifford Bradshaw, a would-be novelist, shy and unsure about himself and his sexuality, who takes up with Sally. Here are Ernst Ludwig, a party wheeler-dealer, and Fräulein Schneider, who runs the boarding house nearby with resignation and a survivor’s acumen; Herr Schultz, a Jewish shop owner, courts her with delicate offerings of fresh fruit and food.
Herr Schultz and Fräulein Schneider — whose intentions to marry strip the Kit Kat Klub denizens of their disguises of being mere revelers at the bonfire of Berlin’s sensual underworld — are absent from Fosse’s version. In the play, surrounded by frenetic and often violent goings-on, they ground the action in recognizable dreams and the desire for stability, manners and acts of kindness, also giving it a fitful danger because you fear for them.
It’s a great cast — and we have to give Mason Alexander Park a lot of the credit. Only 24 years old, Park takes command of this show as the emcee. He’s shrill, he’s pushy, pouty, gleefully in the moment, but he adds something that you don’t often see in this part: a sense of sadness at the destructive passing parade he’s in.
Park has some of the best songs: the tart “Wilkommen” with which he opens the show, all in purple, slinky velvet and high heels; the comic ménage-à-trois frolic “Two Ladies”; the sinister “If You Could See Her.” But he’s everywhere — leering at Sally, insinuating himself into the chorus, tongue out often, pitch-black hair. He’s like a firebug who’s also a spectator.
And watch what Alexandra Silber does with Sally Bowles. She maybe can’t match Liza in her movie-star allure, but she owns Sally in all her dashed hopes, her chitter-chatter, her frenetic movements and singing. Her “Maybe This Time” is a crowd-silencer and a heart-opener. In “Cabaret,” she shows off a rangy, belting voice that’s devastating.
So when your host seems to all but whisper to you “Willkommen,” go for it. You won’t be sorry and you just might feel right at home.
Through Oct. 6
$42 to $79
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
Olney, Maryland 20832