Tanner Schartz and the cast of Cabaret. (Zach Faust)
A mark of any classic is how well it stands up with repetition over time, and across space(s). John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 20th-Century masterpiece Cabaret, which debuted on Broadway in 1966, is no recent stranger (Fremder or étranger, if you prefer) to Kander’s native Kansas City. It’s been roughly a decade since KC Rep set the show awhirl on a Les-Miz-style rotating platform, and barely a year since Music Theatre Heritage’s multi-level spectacle at Crown Center’s Grand Theater, with local university productions and large-scale touring versions in between. Staged in the cozier confines of the Arts Asylum, Faust Theatre’s latest interpretation is far more intimate, but no less impactful—and even more pertinent in its time and space.
Set in the waning years of Germanyʼs Weimar Republic before the rise of Hitler, the cabaret in question is Berlinʼs Kit Kat Club, a seedy escape from—and source of wry commentary on—the troubles of the world outside. As such, the Arts Asylum’s unassuming room, accessed through the side entrance of a theatrical-supply warehouse, makes for a perfectly wonderful place, transformed by a few tables, loosely arranged chairs, and Rachael Honnold’s lighting and Jeff Eubank’s sound. The arrival of the Emcee (Tanner Schartz, in a standout performance that leans hard into the goth mode of the character made famous by Alan Cumming), and his energetic and enigmatically androgynous corps of cabaret dancers, suspends any last disbelief that we aren’t in Kansas anymore (or, you know, Missouri).
Soon enough, under the direction of Zach Faust, the show’s delicate, cautionary themes take center stage—cutting through the surrounding pageantry wrought by the dedicated 13-member ensemble (with costumes by Olivia House; choreography by Christopher Barksdale-Burns) and Kander and Ebb’s extraordinary score (rendered by a talented trio, led by Caleb McCarroll on piano, that fills the room as well as any orchestra could).
The rise and fall of the fraught relationship between struggling American writer Cliff Bradshaw and struggling British club-singer Sally Bowles is ostensibly the show’s A plot. Zoe Lepper is kinetically charismatic as Sally, with just the right amount of ennui, while Jacque Davidson does an admirable job bringing emotional power to Cliff, one of American musical theatre’s most underwritten characters. (The otherwise fine book is by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Charles Isherwood.)
Yet this interpretation makes clear that Cabaret’s true, tragic love story belongs to Fraulein Schneider, owner of the dilapidated boarding house that exemplifies Weimar Germanyʼs lost nobility, and her star-crossed suitor, the Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz. Margo Mikkelson and Ray Zarr are delightful in the roles, their voices blending beautifully in their self-conscious romantic duets. And Fraulein Schneider’s plaintive solo, “What Would You Do?,” as the Nazis ascend in Act Two, might as well be the mantra of the entire show.
Despite the faithful representation of the now nearly-century-old setting, this production hardly feels like a period piece. “Unfortunately, Cabaret is still relevant,” Faust explains in his program note, and as long as we live with the threats of antisemitism, displacement, and would-be dictators, it “will always be relevant.”
The show’s lesson should be obvious, yet it resonates anew, no more so than in the final, arresting moment, which drew gasps from several in the audience—including those of us who think we know Cabaret so well, and should have seen it coming.
“Cabaret,” a co-production of Faust Theatre and the Arts Asylum, runs through December 23 at the Arts Asylum, 824 E. Meyer Blvd. For more information, visit www.theartsasylum.org