Theatre review: 'Cabaret' at The Rep will not disappoint

For the News-DemocratSeptember 23, 2013 

Dark and decadent, "Cabaret" depicts an impending political storm that would reverberate throughout history. The provocative musical's power is undeniable, marked by quicksilver changes in mood by its in-the-moment characters.

The time is Berlin in 1931. Inside the Kit Kat Club, a hedonistic den of anything goes gains traction, but outside, the political extremists of Weimar Germany are finding favor with the gentile citizenry. The collision of the devil-may-care revelers with the rising Third Reich is drenched in irony in The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' version, sharply directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. It runs through Oct. 6.

Focusing on the frivolous club culture, the 1966 Broadway original only hinted at a sinister mind-set lurking at the seedy nightspot, but the Sam Mendes' revision in 1998 stripped the story down to its rotted soul -- a devastating effect. The much-lauded 1972 movie had more warmth and charm, yet the deeper meaning was evident. The Rep's show is a hybrid, with a strong ensemble making bold statements as the landscape gets bleaker.

The lynchpin is The Emcee, but Nathan Lee Graham's portrayal was too over-the-top flamboyant, with distracting vocal affectations. He went so far out of his way to not resemble Joel Grey or Alan Cummins, two definitive award-winning characterizations, that it only occasionally clicked. (I'll give him "If You Could See Her" but the rest bordered on Jerry Lewis in a drag show.) Graham's athletic prowess was obvious, showcasing a nimble and lithe dancer, and he is a striking presence.

Stealing the show were Mary Gordon Murray as pragmatic landlord Fraulein Schneider and Michael Marotta as Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz, splendidly conveying the hope of their romance, and the heartache after realizing it's doomed. Murray convinced us of every feeling in "So What?" and punched us in the gut with "What Would You Do?" Their "Married" was tinged with many feelings.

As the flighty nightclub singer Sally Bowles, Liz Pearce was more ice than fire in acting, but she capably belted out the power ballad "Maybe This Time," the movie song that is now part of the musical score. It's such a crowd favorite, and she nailed it. Her breathy-upset introduction to the title song caught me offguard, but she wound up belting it out of the park.

Depending on the performer, Sally's shame spiral can come across as gut-wrenching or ridiculous, as she choses to ignore the evidence around her, but winds up with pain instead of pleasure. Her lover Cliff has to be the show's conscience, and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka turned the wide-eyed American writer into a captivating character. We understand how mesmerized he is by Sally's free spirit, and why he must take a stand. Words may have failed him as a novelist, but he says much aloud. Herdlicka was one of the best Cliffs in memory.

The song-and-dance numbers are flawless, with a lot of attitude. The show's vibrant tones give way to melancholy, when the price of ignoring what's right must be settled. Fred Ebb's lyrics, combined with John Kander's music, still resonate today.

What: "Cabaret"

When: through Oct. 6

Where: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves

Information and tickets: 314-968-4925. www.repstl.org

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