"There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies ... and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany ... and it was the end of the world."
That climactic lament, uttered by American writer Clifford Bradshaw, is a gut punch in the innovative hands of Stray Dog Theatre, whose inspired production is doused with desperation and decadence.
You've never seen the musical "Cabaret" quite like this before. It builds in power until the shattering finale releases its grip on the audience.
Visionary director Justin Been has deconstructed the familiar John Kander and Fred Ebb collaboration in the darker, edgier style of Sam Mendes' haunting 1993 London West End-1998 Broadway revival, but has distinctively made it his own.
This "Cabaret" is noteworthy for its strong performances, firm focus and an unflinching, sordid look at the rising storm that results in the Holocaust.
Set in a seedy Berlin nightclub in the 1930s, devil-may-care revelers celebrate their hedonistic culture. Times, they are a-changing, and excitement about a new order will eventually turn into fear, bewilderment and chaos. But for now, it's party time.
Between the melancholy-tinged musical numbers, the sinister aspect was merely hinted at in the 1966 Broadway show and a tad more leering in the 1972 movie, but the ironic contrast is sharper here. The naughty boys and girls of the Kit Kat Club and their free-spirit Bohemian customers live in-the-moment, and the foreign visitor will be caught up in the whirlwind.
Flirtatious headliner Sally Bowles embodies the come-what-may attitude, and it's a tricky role to get right. In a confident, impressive performance, Paula Stoff Dean thankfully portrays the frivolous chanteuse more sympathetically, rather than ridiculous, and it's all the more tragic that she stubbornly remains oblivious to what's happening. Her dynamic rendition of the title song is a knockout, infusing it with regret and anguish.
Inside, the Emcee intones, everything is beautiful. We know better, benefiting from historical hindsight, realizing these doomed characters are political pawns in a corrupt era, ripe for Third Reich mindset, and the price that will be paid.
The ominous tone is set in motion by the adrogynous Emcee, played with fierce conviction by gender-bending Lavonne Byers in an indelible performance. Domineering and bawdy, she sells the allure. Her severe asexual appearance is striking -- gone is the Joel Grey pancake makeup, replaced by dramatic eye shadow for the left eye only.
She leads a limber, spirited ensemble in crisply choreographed numbers by inventive Zach Stefaniak, giving off sparks and attitude. The score is a hybrid of numbers from the movie ("Mein Herr," "Maybe This Time"), the original, and the revival (restored "I Don't Care Much"), and music director Chris Petersen's thoughtful arrangements are memorable.
As the elderly couple deprived of living happily ever after, Jan Niehoff and Ken Haller break your heart as Fraulein Schneider, the pragmatic boarding house owner, and Herr Schultz, the good-natured Jewish fruit vendor. They play off each other well, and Haller adds even more nuance as a disabled man. Their "Pineapple Song" is sweet; her convincing "So What?" and "What Would You Do?" punctuate the futility she feels.
The landlady's frumpy outfits and dowdy wig don't altogether succeed in making Niehoff look older, but we'll let that slide. Despite that, the overall looks are fine, with costume designer Alexandra Scibetta Quigley skillfully making the desired statements primarily with black and red on the entertainers, and the others in gray palettes.
With so many colorful personalities orbiting around Cliff, the struggling novelist can come across as bland. Paul Cereghino capably brings out the moral compass but also the character's bisexuality is more overt here.
Been has expanded the role of the prostitute-tenant Fraulein Kost, with Deborah Sharn heartily delivering the chilling "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" and "Married," which takes on new meaning with her vocal. Michael Brightman is solid as the loathsome Nazi sympathizer Ernst Ludwig.
Rob Lippert's visually interesting set expertly captures the production's bleak point of view -- the shabby living quarters, the faux glamour of a hot nightspot -- and purposefully extended the stage. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow sharply adds to the mood and atmosphere.
Patrons can pay extra to sit at the front tables and be waited on by the eager-to-please Kit Kat staff, enjoying a complimentary drink and dessert. The scantily-clad performers mingle with the crowd before each act, too.
This meaningful production's impact is clear, it surpasses any version to date. They don't shy away from the sleaze, but they don't concentrate on vulgarity, either. However, it is for mature audiences.
The imposing, rigid image of Byers' Emcee, combined with the emotional fragility of flaky charmer Sally, and the heart-tugging ill-fated romance of the older couple will linger long in your memory. "Life is a cabaret, old chum" -- come to this "Cabaret."
Where: Stray Dog Theatre, 2336 Tennessee, St. Louis
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through April 19; plus Wednesday
Tickets: www.straydogtheatre.org; (314) 865-1995
For mature audiences