“Cabaret” is one soul-searing piece of theater. The Tony Award-winning 1966 musical by Kander and Ebb is set during the dark days when the Nazis were seizing power in Germany, and Light Opera Works’ production which opened Saturday night in Northwestern’s Cahn Auditorium in Evanston spares us nothing.
The key power of this show is the company’s artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller, who has stepped out from behind the scenes to tackle the role of the ambiguous, undefinable Emcee with a vengeance.
In a tuxedo and wearing the white face of a mime, he unctuously welcomes the audience in three languages at the beginning— to make sure you all understand your role in the proceedings — and his laughter at the end is as diabolical as any Mephistopheles I’ve ever heard. From start to finish Hogenmiller is dynamite, a smarmy vision of decadence and cynicism. It is a star turn for him and an unforgettable portrait of that strange character.
He acts, sings, and dances, easily keeping up with the chorus girls in a kick-line that drew riotous applause opening night. He is reason enough to see this show, but there’s more.
This “Cabaret” also stars vivacious Jenny Lamb as the sassy Sally Bowles, leading lady of the Kit Kat Klub. She is a natural, making her Light Opera Works debut in a role previously played by such names as Lisa Minnelli in the film (which bears but faint resemblance to the stage musical) and Judi Dench, who had that role in the original London production in 1968. Lamb’s first number, “Don’t Tell Mama,” is emblematic of Bowles’ carefree, clueless attitude.
Bowles is an expat from England who thrives on chaos, mistaking it for life, and Lamb is a perfect whirlwind. Finding herself homeless, she inveigles herself into the room — and affections — of Cliff Bradshaw, a young American who has come to Berlin to write his new novel.
David Schlumpf’s Cliff is straight out of central casting, with his trusting smile and argyle vest. Though he’s naive at first, he soon begins to understand the evil spreading across Germany, and by the end finds he too is scarred by it.
Another couple, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, add a heart-breaking note. She is an older German spinster running the boarding house where Cliff and Sally live together. He is a lonely, aging Jewish fruit merchant who proposes marriage. She accepts, then breaks their engagement after Nazis break the window of his market.
Barbara Clear is a winning performer, capturing the early live-and-let-live attitude of Schneider in her number “So What?” She has played character roles in Light Opera Works shows, including “The Secret Garden, “My Fair Lady, “The Music Man” and “Gigi.” Jim Heatherly gives Herr Schultz a warm and loving performance. His number “Meeskite” is full of charm and we shudder for what is ahead for his character.
The show has plenty of production numbers, the most entertaining being “Sitting Pretty (The Money Song)” in which as various international currencies are mentioned — the yen, the franc, the dollar — chorus girls appear in that country’s costume. The outlandish get-ups are reminiscent of Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler.”
This production packs a punch on all levels. Stacy Flaster’s direction and choreography are nearly perfect and music director Roger L. Bingaman makes his pit orchestra soar. And Rudy Hogenmiller’s memorable Emcee, inviting one and all to this “Cabaret,” is the stuff of theater legends.
This is, simply, the best thing Light Opera Works has ever done.