It’s hard not to feel a shiver on hearing the opening drum roll and cymbal crash of the great 1966 musical Cabaret. And Arlington’s Signature Theatre production tricks up that opening number to the nines — as it should, with a bevy of chorus girls and boys, an ambiguously sexual emcee and choreography with plenty of pelvic thrusts and full splits. Set designer Mischa Kachman bisects Signature’s main stage, with a runway parting the middle, cabaret tables situated down front and a working bar that serves drinks and becomes part of the seedy Kit Kat Club, where much of the action pours out like cheap gin.
It’s easy to recollect Cabaret as a bold, brassy American classic — all that great music and dancing. But the dark and cynical undercurrents, as a pair of intimate love affairs play out amid the rise of Nazism, take the show into harsher disquieting directions than its Broadway compatriots did when it premiered in 1966. Two shows that opened that same year, Sweet Charity and Mame, were far, far tamer in every respect. Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb drew inspiration from writings about pre-World War II Europe and the hedonistic end-of-the-world cabaret culture thriving in Berlin during the 1920s and early ‘30s.
Signature’s production, directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner, finds a balance between raunchiness and sweetness in scenes alternating between the Kit Kat Club and those in Fraulein Schneider’s run-down rooming house. There, writer Cliff Bradshaw rents a room, into which low-rent British chanteuse Sally Bowles unceremoniously invites herself — indefinitely. Though Bowles is scripted to be irresistible, she’s also damaged goods. That subtle combination of traits is what typically bowls Cliff over. Yet, here Gregory Wooddell’s Cliff comes off as far too level-headed.
A fine romance that is ultimately doomed was at the root of librettist Joe Masteroff’s drama, but here there isn’t enough mutual attraction for romance to blossom.
The emcee proves the show’s highlight in any Cabaret production worth its chops. Wesley Taylor tears a page from the sweetly sinister Joel Grey characterization, and borrows, too, from Alan Cumming’s stylized S and M version. Taylor, bare chested and buff in leather lederhosen, suspenders and Doc Martens, takes delight in his heightened suggestively sexual antics, as do the rest of the chorus of cabaret players.
The choreography and the terrific costumes, featuring plenty of racy lingerie bought or designed by costumer Frank Labovitz, push many of the numbers from titillating to something heightened and sexually provocative. Music director Jon Kalbfleisch and his excellent eight-piece orchestra, who are costumed and rouged and powdered up, play from a second-floor overhang, and when the horn section steps out to the balcony, the theater bristles with excitement.
Yet, amid all this brassy bombast, Cabaret carries its dark undercurrents: the Nazis are on the rise, the December romance between Fraulein Schneider (the lovely Naomi Jacobson in a rare musical role) and Herr Schultz (Rick Foucheux) is upset, their engagement broken.
While there’s much to admire in Signature’s sexy and hedonistic production, the lead voices, particularly Taylor’s as the Emcee, are less than stellar. In fact, his diction often muddies Fred Ebb’s razor-sharp lyrics. Barrett Wilbert Weed’s Sally could belt in a song climax when necessary, but she didn’t possess the vocal finesse and power that one expects for that role (and, yes, Liza’s high-heels are really hard to fill). Both Foucheux and Jacobson as the older couple held their own in sweet numbers like “It Couldn’t Please Me More” (the pineapple song), because as character actors of tremendous experience, they both understand how to draw drama even from a seemingly simple musical number.
The theater has been careful to place warnings on advertisements and in the lobby noting the show’s full nudity — along with warnings of smoke and Nazi imagery. Yet, beyond a bare bottom and peeks at a bosom here or there, the Kit Kat Club dancers may be only slightly more risqué than Victoria’s Secret models or go-go dancers. The full nudity is neither titillating nor sexy. It’s a moment of unvarnished truth, a revelation of something to come.
As one writer said presciently of German’s prewar cabaret culture: “There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany. It was the end of the world … and we were fast asleep…”
Cabaret, as a full theatrical experience, is always welcome as more than just a vehicle for a kick line and bold musical numbers. It reminds us that horrors may lie beneath even the brassiest, splashiest seductions.
Cabaret through June 28 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets: 703.820.9771 or www.signature-theatre.org.