If it were the only version of Cabaret I'd seen in the last 10 years, I would have been thoroughly entertained by the flashy, affair that's closing the season at PlayMakers Repertory Company.
Director Joseph Haj has assembled a major vehicle out of a truly imposing number of moving parts. Its strengths include Taylor Mac, a fairly big off-Broadway name, in the role of the Emcee; enviable achievements in design, setting, lights, costume and sound; and solid work from seasoned actors in supporting roles. Then add Casey Sam's interactive choreography, clearly driven by character, music and lyrics, and no shortage of grace notes from an eight-piece onstage orchestra led by discerning music director Mark Hartman.
To Haj's credit, the vehicle's ride was mostly smooth over the rough terrain of Joe Masterhoff's script as it propelled cast and audience through the evening.
But it would be particularly difficult for the region's fifth locally generated Cabaret in the last seven years to provide what's touted as a fresh look at the 1966 Kander and Ebb musical, which was shockingly re-imagined by Sam Mendes in London in 1993 and on Broadway in 1998.
Instead, the sense of variations on already well-established themes begins with designer Marion Williams' set. Its most striking element is a metaphorically potent take on the stage-length picture frame which designer Robert Brill utilized earlier in New York. Here, teetering precariously over the band, the empty frame suggests a capsize as it lists at a dangerous angle, leaning upstage, its base already sunken below the floorboards. The sense of a shipwreck in process is heightened by the set's tilted second story, representing the performers' dressing rooms at the notorious Kit Kat Klub.
As the nightclub's master of ceremonies, Mac (whose solo show, The Young Ladies Of, was presented by PRC2 in 2009) is madcap and gregarious. His Emcee is abrasive and clearly more acquainted with the rough trade that would populate a gritty Berlin underground at the end of the Weimar era. These choices are commendable. But that sardonic, hard-as-nails exterior doesn't serve when it stays apparently unbreached in numbers like the second-act torch song "I Don't Care Much." Mac's rendition doesn't surpass Derrick Ivey's take in last year's production at William Peace University.
A larger miscalculation lies in Haj's work with Lisa Brescia in the role of Sally Bowles, the supposed "toast of Mayfair" who is headlining at the Klub. Her strangely prim and undersold version of "Don't Tell Mama" ultimately didn't concern me as much as her character's tendency toward internalized emotion and invulnerability throughout the evening. Several regional productions have successfully explored the increasing desperation of Sally's character, a surface this one only scratched in comparison.
One notable exception came during the second-act song "Maybe This Time." We watched as Brescia's character grappled with self-loathing, trying to convince herself that her relationship with Cliff (John Dreher), an American writer visiting Berlin, actually had any chance of survival.
Among supporting roles, Julie Fishell was notable as a curt Fraulein Schneider. Her strident, abrasive interpretation of "So What?" and "What Would You Do?" fully probed the fatalistic subtext in both songs.
Credit is due to music director Hartman for the kid glove treatment given the numbers dealing with Schneider's touching late-in-life courtship with Herr Schultz (Jeffrey Blair Cornell): "It Couldn't Please Me More" and "Married."
Less successful, though, was Mac's rendition of "The Money Song," with problematic rhythm and lyrics little more than a blur.
In one break between scenes, the Emcee quotes a passage from Mein Kampf, which is not in the script. It's unsettling, but it also reads as a mark of this production's insecurity when the Emcee seems forced to explain that his interest in Nazi costumes lies in its "fetish aesthetic."
In smaller theaters, Cabaret tends to have a much more predatory aspect. Here, the repeated excursions the actors made out into the house were diluted due to the size of Paul Green Theatre. That I can live with. But when this Cabaret leaves its central characters' tough exteriors too intact, it doesn't always favorably compare with the versions that have come before it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Springtime for hits."