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Bristol Riverside Theatre’s “Cabaret” is timely and titillating

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Set in Berlin amid the terrifying rise of Nazism in 1930, the 1966 Broadway musical “Cabaret” is startlingly timely in today’s worrisome climate of political and health crises.

With a smart book by Philadelphia native Joe Masteroff, and incisive songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the musical takes us inside a decadent cabaret where titillating music and dancing masquerade as an escape from reality, while slyly mirroring the horrific outside world that’s worsening the more its disease is ignored.

Fans familiar only with the 1972 film version of “Cabaret” will be doubly gratified by Bristol Riverside Theatre’s absorbing stage production, brilliantly directed by Keith Baker.

Not only does this production incorporate the hit songs “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time,” added to the score for the movie to showcase its star Liza Minnelli, but it will also introduce movie-goers to the show’s wonderfully poignant book songs. Cut from the film, they heighten important dramatic action occurring in scenes outside the cabaret, and are here smartly staged in new and imaginative fashion by Baker.

Most notably, into the touching love songs of an elderly couple (one of whom is Jewish), as well as the patriotic German anthem sung at their engagement party, Baker inserts the cabaret’s Emcee. A disturbingly bizarre, yet seductive presence, he moves mimetically in the background offering sardonic visual commentary on the “interruptions” Nazism will soon inflict on everyone’s lives.

While conceptually meaningful, the inclusion of the Emcee in these book songs also allows Baker to give more stage time to the production’s most captivating performer. In a role originally made memorable by Joel Grey, both on stage and screen, Robb Sapp is enthralling. He moves with such strength, speed, and clarity that his gestures speak with frightening authority, while his face and voice project a penetrating grotesqueness that both repulses and attracts.

Ably aided by Nicole Calabrese (costumed as a tutu-wearing gorilla), Sapp’s performance of the shockingly anti-Semitic “If You Could See Her” hits the bull’s-eye in getting us to think about the fine lines between entertainment, propaganda and conformity. He shines, too, assisted by Kendyll Young and Wesley Cappiello, in the naughty, intricately staged menage a trois “Two Ladies.”

Productions of “Cabaret” often lose their appeal when, after an upbeat, romantic start, the proceedings grow dark and intensely politicized in the second act. Here, however, the show’s impact strengthens as it moves through that difficult territory.

The electrifying ensemble rendition of what proves to be the Nazi-rousing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” that closes the first act is so persuasively done that, on opening night, the audience barely applauded, appreciative of the cast’s performance yet hesitant to appear supportive of the ideology.

The particularly well-executed, satiric can-can precision kick-line that opens the second act is followed by a beautifully acted scene between Philip Hoffman, as Herr Schultz, and Jo Twiss, as his fiancée Fraulein Schneider, who, out of fear, calls off her wedding to Schultz, a Jew. Later, explaining her torment in the pleading ballad “What Would You Do?” Twiss sings with heart-rending power.

The highlight of the evening comes at the very end, with the angst-ridden rendition of “Cabaret” by Lauren Molina, in the leading role of the cabaret performer Sally Bowles. A phenomenal singer, Molina voices the familiar lyrics, not with the expected playfulness, but with a hard-edged, angry insistence that keenly reflects a desperate need to convince herself that everything will be okay.

Cabaret officially opened at Bristol Riverside Theatre on March 12. Performances have been postponed until at least mid-April.


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