Written by: John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics), Joe Masteroff (book). At: Light Opera Works, Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston. Tickets: 1-847-9205360; www.LightOperaWorks.com; $32-$92. Runs through: Aug. 25
I saw the original 1966 Cabaret in its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston, where I was in school. I'd been invited backstage afterwards, and as I walked down the hallway, Joel Gray (the original Emcee) was just a few feet in front of me with his father, Mickey Katz, a popular comic bandleader. They walked with arms around each other's shoulder and I heard Gray ask, "Did you like it, Pa? Did you like it?"
Of course Pa liked it, and everyone liked it. There were some typical pre-Broadway changes to be made, and Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles clearly was the weakest link in a superb cast, but even so it had "hit" written all over it. It was an unusual show, which began without an overture, with the curtain up and a large mirror reflecting the audience. In addition, Cabaret had a pointed political message at a time when the Great Depression and World War II were vivid memories for most adults.
Today, the magnificent film version is far more familiar than the Broadway original. Indeed, subsequent stage revivals were altered to be more like the film, as well as increasingly sexual. They also turned the Emcee into the starring role, which it definitely was not at first.
It's a great pleasure, then, that Light Opera Works (LOW) is staging the Broadway original, complete with original orchestrations by Don Walker and the roles of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz fully restored. It confirms that Cabaret is solidly within the tradition of book-and-number Broadway musicals, and that the skill and complexity of its writing and structure are top-notch. Filled with rue and doomed people, Cabaret still produces goose bumps driven by a vivacious, varied and ever-fresh score.
However, LOW couldn't resist the Emcee as star, making him a silent observer in scene after scene, his rouged porcelain face a clown at one moment and a death's head the next, a complex mix of decadence and threat. Fortunately, Rudy Hogenmiller projects charisma as the Emcee. Although now chiefly occupied with offstage duties, he retains the dancing and singing agility the role requires.
Indeed, the entire company is solid and appealing, and musical values are first-rate, as ever at LOW. The well-matched couples are Jenny Lamb (Sally Bowles), David Schlumpf (Cliff Chamberlain), Barbara Clear (Fraulein Schneider) and Jim Heatherly (Herr Schultz), all performing with force and charm under director/choreographer Stacey Flaster and conductor Roger L. Bingaman (both LOW veterans).
With the serious physical limits of Cahn Auditorium, the scenic design by Angela Weber Miller relies on flown flats and curtains and furniture carried from the wings. It's serviceable but without dazzle. Stephen Ptacek's sound design is clear, well-balanced and natural.