Exactly 50 years ago this month, “Cabaret” hit Broadway like a guided missile. It’s hard to recall now how startling the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical seemed in its day.
Theatergoers who were still celebrating the nobility of “Man of La Mancha,” the period humor of “Hello, Dolly” and the heartwarming antics of small-town Jews in “Fiddler on the Roof” were welcomed to the decadent Kit Kat Club in Berlin at the start of the 1930s. Their host? A garishly painted, sexually ambiguous master of ceremonies who sang of his liaisons with multiple women but hinted that the inclusion of a man would not be amiss.
The Roundabout Theatre Company revival in the 1990s upped the shock value, and that’s what came to Belk Theater Tuesday night on its national tour.
The nameless emcee, performed with frightening zeal and one note of tawdry tenderness by Randy Harrison, gropes everyone who comes near. The role, third-billed in the original, is now top-billed; director Sam Mendes justifies that change by inserting the emcee into almost every scene, like a demonic puppetmaster.
Sally Bowles (a wild yet fragile Andrea Goss) snorts coke and looks in her final number like she’s about to collapse from malnutrition. Cliff Bradshaw, the American author whose naive eyes serve for all of ours, seems adrift in this sea of amorality. (Benjamin Eakeley gives the character a stronger spine than it has sometimes had.)
His elderly landlady and her equally aged Jewish lover, made unusually poignant by Mary Gordon Murray and Scott Robertson, also seem unusually deluded to hope they can weather the storm of Nazism. Opportunistic hooker Fraulein Kost (Alison Ewing) appears shrewdly pragmatic by comparison. Mendes makes Ernst (Patrick Vaill), Cliff’s newfound guide to Berlin, the most likeable chap onstage – until we see the swastika on his arm.
Some viewers may find this circus of horrors too much to take. Even the girls of the Kit Kat Klub aren’t merely sleazy in Rob Marshall’s choreography: They stagger and stomp in a cross between Nazi goosesteps and a dance of the living dead. But if this is your “Cabaret,” you could hardly ask for a better-performed version. (Special kudos to the brassy orchestra high above the stage.)
Or, perhaps, a more timely one. Mendes and book writer Joe Masteroff bring out the worst thing about Nazism: The demonizing of the “impure,” the ones who don’t belong, those who undermine the nation by their inability or refusal to conform to acceptable norms. The song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” has never seemed as chilling as it did Tuesday night. The America of 2017 may have found a new anthem.