One thing becomes abundantly clear while witnessing Bailey McCall Thomas' emotionally charged rendition of the song "Cabaret" during a performance of the iconic Broadway musical of the same name: there is perhaps no "title song" quite so evocative, quite so stunning as John Kander and Fred Ebb's composition for Cabaret. For it is during that song, performed by Sally Bowles in a Weimar era nightclub in Berlin, that the show's entire focus - every theme that shapes the work in order to tell its totally engrossing and entertaining story - is brought sharply into view, set to a memorable melody that seems at once to be both joyous and mournful, ensuring that every audience member experiences a response unique to them.
Now onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall for an eight-performance run through Sunday, Cabaret returns to Nashville at the perfect time, a contemporary period that begs comparison to the excesses of the Weimar era in Germany between the two world wars, when social and class warfare seemed to be simmering beneath the surface of a hedonistic, decadent society in which anything seemed possible, yet nothing seemed probable.
In the halcyon days of Weimar Berlin - considered by many to be one of the most cosmopolitan and progressive cities in the world, if not the prime example of worldly sophistication - people shell-shocked by the events of the first World War struggled to come to terms with Germany's reduced station on the global stage, both economically and politically, and sought to create a new world order defined by its embrace of various political beliefs, numerous intellectual pursuits and sundry sexual dalliances that seemed to free people from the chains of a restrictive and repressive past. Little did they know that the impact of the stock market crash of 1929 and a general reluctance to see things as they really were would ultimately lead to the Nazis taking over their world, descending it into madness.
Joe Masteroff's libretto, based upon John Van Druten's 1951 play I Am A Camera (which, in turn, was inspired by Christopher Isherwood's novella Goodbye to Berlin, published in 1939), creates a vivid portrait of the era and of the nightclub, creating characters that demand to be noticed in all their guts and glory. The character of Sally Bowles, one of the most iconic females to be found in all of musical theater, represents the amazing transformation of the role of women during the 1920s, both roaring and otherwise, while her suitor Clifford Bradshaw - a rather naïve young American expatriate seeking adventure in Berlin to help him achieve acclaim as a novelist - embodies everything the audience may find out about themselves over the course of the play. The Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, whose given name we never learn and who appears almost cartoonlike (a caricature of the devil-may-care entertainer who lives only to cajole and comfort with an outlandish persona), proves to be a guide to the increasingly frenetic escapades that signal the total descent into fascism among the intelligentsia eager to try the next big thing and for the lower classes yearning to find an easy way out of their squalid lives.
Those three characters - and their contrasting ways with dealing with what life offers them - are brought together, perhaps by happenstance, to give us a view of a world that is deceptive in its purported glamour and excess, only to be revealed at show's end as something far more sinister and yet strangely captivating.
Carl Pariso, cast as Clifford Bradshaw, might first appear as a stereotypical romantic lead, but he eschews the expected paint-by-numbers version of Cliff that we have seen previously, to instead give a more interesting and colorful character. Charming and handsome, yet wonderfully confident, Pariso allows every audience member to see the world created in Cabaret through his wildly innocent, American abroad persona, and we feel every emotion portrayed by him over the course of the story.
Clearly, however, it's Erik Schneider as The Emcee who takes control of the show from its very first moments and refuses to loosen his grip on their hearts (maybe even their very souls) until the musical's cataclysmic conclusion that leaves audiences breathless and uncertain of how to react. Schneider is by turns raucous and hilarious, appealing and somewhat frightening, depending upon what the script calls for from one scene to the next and he does it with such ease that it's staggering. Schneider's stage presence is compelling and his ability to win over the audience is nothing short of awe-inspiring, while his zany antics (delivered with over-the-top theatricality) ensures that "Wilkommen" launches the show with aplomb and style. In fact, his razor-sharp wit and impeccable timing are rather awe-inspiring.
Musical director Eric Flaten's musicians are impressive in their dexterity: At one moment, they are providing rich interpretations of the memorable John Kander score, while perhaps at the next they are playing denizens of the Kit Kat Klub or neighborhood thugs, wastrels and other folks of questionable repute. Flaten and his band are given their own richly deserved moments in the spotlight at the top of Act Two and the music director himself is given the well-earned final bow at the end of the curtain call.
Robert Brill's set design remains compelling, particularly amid the dazzling lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari, and William Ivey Long's costume design helps to establish the production's time period with fashions that are both emphatic and exquisite. There were some sound issues on opening night at TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall, but overall David Temby's sound design is well done.
The overall takeaway from opening night? Cabaret is a musical theater treasure - one that we love as much as anything ever written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Porter, Styne, the Gershwins, Pasek and Paul, or any of the other members of the theatrical pantheon - in fact, what this production proves most effectively is just how beloved the show and its score are. Even if you've seen dozens of productions of Cabaret, or particularly if you've seen only a few or perhaps even none, it's a show that you really must experience to affirm your musical theater bona fides.
Cabaret. Book by Joe Masteroff. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play by John Van Druten and the stories by Christopher Isherwood. Directed by BT McNicholl (based on the original by Sam Mendes). Choreography by Jennifer Werner (based on the original by Rob Marshall). Musical direction by Eric Flaten. Presented by APEX Touring at Andrew Jackson Hall, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through Sunday, March 4. Go to www.TPAC.org for details or call (615) 782-4040 for tickets. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 20-minute intermission).