One of the hardest hat tricks on the Broadway stage is to revive a show that has had a successful movie adaptation. This is more difficult still for the stars of these shows to impress when a megastar popularized the role. It was with this grain of salt that I entered the touring production of "Cabaret," struggling to put thoughts of Liza Minnelli out of my mind. I was happy to say that the moment the iconic score flooded the theater I was immediately transported to the much more aggressive, less romantic story of Clifford Bradshaw coming to Berlin.
"Cabaret" is a musical about Clifford coming to Berlin to teach English lessons and gain inspiration for his novel. He finds friends in the colorful underbelly of the city, work through his friend Ernst Ludwig, and a romance with the just-fired cabaret performer, Sally Bowles.
The timeline of this romance coincides with the slow rise of Hitler and the Nazi party and even goes on to implicate that some of the relationships Clifford has created have involved him. While in the movie this was slowly introduced and still felt like a backdrop, the often hopeful manner in which Clifford and Sally conduct their romance on film seemed mostly gone on stage.
In fact, the overarching feeling present throughout the show was one of extreme tension. All of the characters' movements are mocked from the shadows by the Emcee and the Kit Kat cast, implying a doom to come. Sally's careless manner crashes forebodingly against Clifford's sensibility. Even Fräulein Schneider appears in constant conflict with her rowdy tenants. And this is all before our little nightclub transitions into a staging ground for the rise of the Nazis.
With all of this tension steadily rising, it was jarring to feel the show's aggression unloaded on the audience. As the Nazis take over, as Sally careens back into her old ways, and as neighbors begin to turn against neighbors, the final message of the show is to remind us that to look on as oppression occurs to become complicit. Continuing with the show while atrocities crop up is a distraction, and a dangerous one. The band disappears, the songs get sad, and eventually those things in which we found joy will be gone as well.
The touring cast was exceptional, led by Jon Peterson as the Emcee. With seemingly boundless energy, Peterson's every movement shaped the energy of the show. The other stand-out was Mary Gordon Murray's Fräulein Schneider, whose few songs showed an actress of such strong voice and skill level that it almost overshadowed the entire production. The scenes were not Murray's to chew, but my eyes stayed on her even in the character's quiet moments.
"Cabaret" has been able to maintain its relevance by remaining unflinching with its condemnation of those of us who have been complicit to our greatest shames. The 1930's is a perfect backdrop with its seedy nightlife of excess up against the rising danger of Nazism, but its message is not exclusive to that period. Sally's mournful, almost unbelievable performance of the show's title song at the end was maybe not the version of the song we all like to hear. But it surely was the one we needed.
"Cabaret" runs through April 9 at the Academy of Music, 240 South Broad St. For tickets or information, call 215-893-1999 or visit www.academyofmusic.org.