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Based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories and John Van Druten's subsequent adaptations of the work for stage and screen, Cabaret is an acknowledged classic of American musical theatre, vying with Chicago as the best in the Kander & Ebb canon. But an appreciable part of this musical's greatness is the result of steady evolution, with the 1972 film directed by Bob Fosse and the London/Broadway revivals of the 1990s serving as significant signposts along the way. So the current Central Piedmont Community College Theatre production at Halton Theater, resurrecting the original 1966 songbook by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, along with the original Joe Masteroff book, is a rather audacious – and questionable – choice.
Musically, the trade-offs are punishing. The long-forgotten "Telephone Song" is raised from the dead, together with "Why Should I Wake Up," "Sitting Pretty," and the wince-inducing "Meeskite." Worse, the score is beggared by the loss of two prime Sally Bowles numbers, "Mein Herr" and "Maybe This Time," and two signature Emcee songs, "Money" and "I Don't Care Much." Without all this hummable material, the decadence of Kander & Ebb's pre-World War II Berlin reverts to embryonic form. But while the lush flowers of evil we've become accustomed to are nearly reduced to buds, Sally is downsized from a superstar diva to a commonplace saloon hall singer, restoring the overall concept to its original proportions.
So there are refreshing consolations to be found in this hit-deprived version of Cabaret, particularly since director Tom Hollis has found so many fine folk to fill the key roles. After a cuddlesome local debut last spring as Angel in Rent, Charlton Alicea veers radically to his saturnine side as our Emcee, taking far better advantage here of his dancing prowess in "Two Ladies" and assorted other Kit Kat Klub abominations. Kayla Piscatelli makes a smashing debut as Sally, although her wig and makeup are the only blemishes that mar costume designer Jamey Varnadore's work. There's even a detectable growl as she delivers the climax of the title tune.
If the proficiency of these lead performers isn't enough to convince you that this isn't some run-of-the-mill college or community production, Pat Heiss as Fräulein Schneider and James K. Flynn as Herr Schultz should complete the task. Their pineapple song could hardly be more precious. No less professional – though a generation younger – is Adam Morse as Cliff Bradshaw, the writer who brings all these other people together in this beautifully cohesive tale. Almost immediately after settling into the Fräulein's boarding house, Cliff gets his first peep at the Kit Kat Klub, where he catches Sally's eye. Lurking behind this cozy setup is Nazi smuggler Ernst Ludwig, played with a fine blend of suavity and arrogance by Gyo Gamble, who refers Cliff to the boardinghouse as they're travelling to Berlin and points the stranger to the decadent charms of the Klub. This same Ludwig tells Schneider that marrying Schultz, a Jew, will be frowned upon. And it just might be Ludwig who instigates that brick thrown into Schultz's shop window the next time the couple meets.
Like Chicago, this Kander & Ebb confection doesn't require oodles of scenery, making it a perfect choice for this strapped budget year. Set designer James Duke sits the eight-piece Kit Kat Klub orchestra (ably led from the keyboard by Ellen Robison) upstage beneath the KKK marquee and behind a façade of flashing lights. Cocktail tables disappear into the wings and an appropriate background descends from the flyloft when we adjourn to the boardinghouse. Together with Varnadore's costumes, Ron Chisholm's racy choreography, and Rick Moll's sinister lighting, the whole production issues a sly, nicely-polished welcome from the moment the spotlight first shines on our devilish Emcee. Where are your troubles now? Consumed in a wickedly charming hellfire.
Cabaret continues through February 26. For details, see the sidebar.