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BWW Reviews: Relevant and Masterful CABARET at PlayMakers Rep

PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill is currently staging a production of Kander and Ebb's 1967 Tony Award-winning best musical Cabaret that is racy, dazzling, and thought-provoking. Starting and ending on two very different trains, and set largely in the Kit Kat Klub nightclub and in a boarding house, Cabaret features many characters of uncertain goals, ambiguous sexuality, and real heart, who are, whether they are willing to admit it or not, facing real danger with the rise of the Nazi Party looming. Though perhaps existing on society's fringe, the show is a real testament to the average German and their inability (or even refusal) to believe that something truly terrible could be brewing in their own nation. Interestingly enough, the story is largely told through the story of a Brit, Sally Bowles (played to perfection by Lisa Brescia), and an American, her lover Cliff Bradshaw (the undeniably charming John Dreher), as they provide a sort of outsider's perspective on how people reacted to the decline of Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism. Hosted by the club's Emcee, played by Taylor Mac, the show goes from glitzy dance numbers to heartfelt ballads and back again as it navigates through one of the most tenuous times in the history of the Western world.

Scenic design and other production elements are a particular hallmark of PlayMakers Repertory Company. This show features a lovely scenic design by Marion Williams that allows for so much flexibility and freedom within the space. The most intriguing element is a suspended, off-kilter row of five rooms that are almost continually occupied. They serve as train cars, dressing rooms, and more. Additionally, the set design includes some elements of moving pieces, namely a moving platform downstage and an upstage moving circle which rotates people and set pieces in and out as it circles the on-stage orchestra. In addition to the set design, the direction has the actors using the entire theater space, going up and down the aisles. This furthers the illusion that the audience may really be the crowd at the Kit Kat Klub.

The almost impossibly high quality of the musical numbers is due to the talented actors' knowledge of when to hold back and when to absolutely go all out. Mac and Brescia have such a handle on their vocal instruments that they make you forget that anyone else has ever sung those songs before. Broadway vet Brescia's "Maybe This Time" is a veritable master class in singing for the stage, and her "Cabaret" is perfectly chill-inducing. She is the quintessential Bowles with the perfect combination of heart and spunk. Likewise, everything Taylor Mac touches turns to gold, right from the first moment of the opening number, "Wilkommen." He is a true performer, who was clearly born to play this role. He gets some more freedom with the material as his character interacts directly with the audience. He knows how to work a crowd, how to involve even the most reserved theatergoers, and it clearly matters to him that the audience is having a quality theater experience. Credit is also due to the Kit Kat Klub girls and boys who perform wonderfully era-appropriate choreography (by Casey Sams) and bring the Kit Kat Klub to life. The small but wonderful orchestra does a big job - some members play quite a few instruments, and they manage to be on stage without being overwhelming. Amid all these fabulous musical numbers, Fräulein Schneider's song "So What?" falls short of the mark as it is performed in a sort of talk-sing that makes the song seem to go on far too long. Other than that single musical number and a touch of less-than-convincing German pronunciation, the show is remarkably perfect.

From an intellectual standpoint, the show makes a noteworthy effort to highlight that the Nazis targeted more than just the Jewish people. While the Nazis' anti-Jewish sentiments are certainly not downplayed, the fact that the Nazis also targeted homosexuals, perceived political radicals, and folks of many races is also included in the harsh realities this show confronts. While some younger generations may feel some distance from the terrors of Nazi Germany, Cabaret is still startlingly relevant in today's global political climate, as genocide and bigotry have not been erased from humanity. It continues to be a haunting glimpse at the worst of humanity; the ways that director Joseph Haj, as well as the cast and the rest of the creative team have chosen to punctuate this production prove that this musical, written fifty years ago, is most certainly still needed by today's audiences.

Cabaret runs through April 21. For tickets and more information, visit

Photo credit: Jon Gardiner

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