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Theater Review: Cabaret continues to reflect on our modern challenges

by Scott C. Morgan

Title: Cabaret. Book: Joe Masteroff; Score: John Kander & Fred Ebb. At: Porchlight Music Theatre at Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.

Tickets: 773-777-9884 or Article Link Here ; prices begin at $25. Runs through March 19

Cabaret will always be a timely cautionary tale.

This oft-revived and -revised 1966 Broadway musical revels in the cultural openness and sexual freedoms of Berlin in the late '20s and early-'30s, while also ominously hinting how they would all be stamped out when the Nazis came to power. Cabaret also serves as a contemporary "never again" warning to audiences to be on guard for similarly destructive and hateful fascist regimes.

Porchlight takes a more colorful approach to Cabaret rather than copying the stark, washed-out look of the influential 1998 Broadway revival (now largely the default licensed version). Artistic director Michael Weber and co-director/choreographer Brenda Didier restore snippets of oft-cut stage Cabaret material like the flirty "Telephone Song," while also injecting more of the tacky visual glamor reminiscent of Bob Fosse's acclaimed 1972 film adaptation.

All this is not only reflected in designer Bill Morey's glittery costumes and the flashy lighting design of Patrick Chan, but also with the star casting of Josh Walker as the energetic Emcee who headlines the notorious Kit Kat Klub. Fans of the film will remember a little person ventriloquist appearing alongside Liza Minnelli's Academy Award-winning take on the chanteuse Sally Bowles. So, Walker's magnetic and wickedly funny performance of the Emcee for Porchlight feels right at home.

Other perfectly marvelous performances abound. Erica Stephan vocally and dramatically shines as the tragic good-time British gal Sally Bowles. Stephan masterfully puts over such amazing Kander and Ebb standards as "Maybe This Time," "Mein Heir" and the ironically upbeat title song.

More kudos are due for Mary Robin Roth and Mark David Kaplan, who are very touching in the respective secondary romantic roles of the seen-it-all landlady FrÀ´┐Żulein Schneider and the earnest Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz. It's heartbreaking to see how these later-in-life lovers are forced apart by the rising Nazi menace.

The bulk of Porchlight's Cabaret is top-notch, particularly the rollicking jazz band led by music director Linda Madonia and very flexible and versatile acting ensemble. But I do question a couple of staging choices by Weber and Didier.

The '50s flashback framing device within a cavernous train station (beautifully rendered by set designer Angela Weber Miller) feels tacked on just to make Porchlight's Cabaret different from others. This is despite the historical fact of Christopher Isherwood (the gay author of the Berlin Stories that inspired the musical) returned to Germany in the '50s to find out if he could find anyone from his time in the Weimar Republic.

And I'm not sure if the overwhelmingly racist sentiments of the era get fully explored in Porchlight's Cabaret with the casting of Gilbert Domally as the bisexual American novelist Clifford Bradshaw. Perhaps Weber and Didier wanted to comment on how some African-American artists like the author James Baldwin or the entertainer Josephine Baker found more acceptance in Europe than in the United States.

But it's also hard to forget the poster to the Nazis' 1930s exhibit on "Degenerate Music" that attacked Jewish or jazz-influenced composers like Kurt Weill and Ernst Krenek. That poster shockingly featured a racist caricature of a Black saxophonist wearing a Star of David boutonniere on his lapel. So, to have Domally's Cliff so immediately embraced by characters who are later revealed to be Nazis doesn't help Porchlight's Cabaret to feel fully sincere.

But these are just minor quibbles. Porchlight Music Theatre's revival of Cabaret is most welcome and entertaining, while also being deeply unsettling. And how could it not amid recent events?

In Washington, D.C., previously censured Republican representatives with white supremacist associations have been granted powerful committee posts in Congress. Or closer to home, there was the Jan. 16 incident when a man reportedly yelled homophobic slurs when he smashed a window at the Chicago bar R Public House.

Cabaret gets its power as a rumination on the apathy that led to past political horrors of the early 20th century. So it's also unfortunate that Cabaret can also feel like a reflection of contemporary America, too.

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