The Arden Theatre Company's Cabaret awkwardly mixes naughty and nice in a production that, as the old saying goes, tries to have its cake and eat it too. Cabaret, the Arden's 180th production, launches its 30th season.
Not to say that the Arden's revival of the 1966 musical by Joe Masterhoff (book, based on the play by John Van Druten and Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical stories), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics) isn't enjoyable or relevant. But director Matthew Decker's production, using the 1998 Roundabout Theatre Company revival's script, titillates with the Kit Kat Klub's garish sexuality (women in underwear, men in women's underwear, lots of hip thrusting and simulated fellatio) in clever, unthreatening ways. These juxtapose awkwardly with the material's serious intentions about the Nazi rise to power in the early 1930s.
Not that there's anything wrong with that
This Cabaret shares many a wink with the Arden's audience — including ad-libbed jokes about subscribers — but plays rather tame. John Jarboe, one of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret's masterminds, is great as the iconic Emcee. Towering in high heels and a top hat with a veil, he appears in whiteface with garish false lashes and a partially shaved head, wearing an imposing silver gown for his first entrance, truly alien and frightening. He leads us through the romance between American would-be writer Cliff (Daniel Frederick) and British singer Sally (Charissa Hogeland), and a subplot about landlady Frau Schneider (Mary Elizabeth Scallen) and Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Kenny Morris). Though initially scary, he can't help but be likeable.
I'm not just saying that because he chose to sit in my lap early in Act Two during a largely ad-libbed speech referencing contemporary issues, but because what should be menacing or at least off-putting ends up being, well, delightful. His chorus of Lauren Williams, Alicia Jayne Kelly, Cara Treacy, Suli Holum, Phoebe Gavula, Jordan Dobson, and Kevin John Murray execute choreographer Jenna Rose's sharp dances with style, plus play small roles and move furniture. Their leering and posing, often in the aisles and at the tables surrounding David P. Gordon's glitzy cabaret stage, is playfully sexy.
Jarboe sometimes bridges the giddy naughtiness with more serious themes — especially in his solo "I Don't Care Much," in a slinky red gown. Other performances also help, particularly Scallen challenging us directly with "What Would You Do?" Despite Decker's powerfully crafted, truly frightening final moment, though, the sparkling cabaret performances often feel at odds with the dramatic storyline's darker tones.
There's a storm in the world
To Decker's credit, there is an effort to bridge the two. Holum (as Fraulein Kost) gives the haunting "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" a naked voraciousness instead of the eerie earnestness typically heard. It's part of a scene in which Cliff's Nazi friends and neighbors reveal themselves, and for a moment near Act One's end, the production flirts with danger.
Strong performances from all include Hogeland's wounded Sally, who makes the title song truly dramatic because she's still deciding what to do rather than celebrating her decision. It's genuinely raw, and again we glimpse what's really at stake. Frederick embodies Cliff's Yankee innocence while making the modern version's suggestions of bisexuality believable. Christopher Patrick Mullen excels as Ernst, Cliff's German friend with a big secret. Music director Alex Bechtel's band, perched above the stage, is superb, and Olivera Gajic's period costumes (and the cast's many quick changes) are likewise splendid.
All in all, it's a fine Cabaret — except that we're left more amused by its frolicsome sexuality than moved by its menace and timely warnings about fascism. We're only fleetingly aware that Germans sang and laughed until it was too late, because we're having so much fun doing the same.