There has never been any doubt about just what goes on in “Cabaret.” The musical was unusual for its time because it’s a drama, not a romance or comedy, as it tracks the rise of Nazi fascism in 1931 Germany. Groundbreaking in Harold Prince’s original 1966 Broadway production for its frank look at the decadence of its Berlin setting and the fluid sexual orientation of its characters, the work still both thrills and chills.
Led by Robin de Jesús as a fierce, contemptuous master of ceremony, director Glenn Casale’s bracing production at the Music Circus hammers home the play’s dark message. While the androgynous emcee oversees entertainment at the risqué Kit Kat Klub, he also haunts other scenes with a ghoulish omnipresence. De Jesús has an angelic voice and clean boyish beauty, which makes his Emcee even more dangerously seductive. Bob Richard choreographed the telling dance sequences.
The musical was based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I Am a Camera,” an adaption of Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel “Goodbye to Berlin.” Since its Broadway debut, there have been numerous serious revivals and reconceptions of the content, including Bob Fosse’s popular movie version with substantially different material than the Music Circus stage production.
The setting alternates between the lively nightclub and a boarding house where scuffling young American writer Clifford Bradshaw lands in the opening scene. Cliff finds himself suddenly in the orbit of singer Sally Bowles who works at the club. The strong singing and convincing chemistry of Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as Cliff and Kaleigh Cronin as Sally orient the production’s emotional core. Cliff, charming and naive, doesn’t seem like a match for Sally’s free wheeling party girl. Still, they become roommates of convenience, with benefits, despite Cliff’s ambiguous sexuality. Another romance between the fatalistic boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray) and hopeful Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Ron Wisniski) embodies the tragic arc “Cabaret” ultimately takes. Murray and Wisniski are beautifully voiced and heartfelt throughout.
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At the club we get deliberately saucy numbers such as the iconic opening “Wilkommen” and Sally’s showcase “Don’t Tell Mama.” While in the boarding house we hear the personal stories in Fräulein Schneider’s resigned “So What?” and the intimate duet between Cliff and Sally, “Don’t Go.” The dominating shroud of Nazism gradually creeps into the story, overshadowing both segments and fulfilling the early foreboding.
There’s nothing subtle here but the play has always been clear in what it’s about. In times such as now, the play’s message hits harder.
What: The Music Circus production of “Cabaret” with Robin de Jesús, Kaleigh Cronin and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka. Glenn Casale directs and Bob Richard choreographs.
When: 7:30 p.m. July 26 – 30; matinees 2 p.m. Thursday, July 28, and Saturday, July 30; and 3 p.m. Sunday, July 31.
Where: Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento
Tickets: $45 - $88.
Time: Two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission