Confidence! If you’re going to perform risqué numbers during the rise of Nazism in pre-WWII Germany, you need a lot of it. And confidence is exactly what the team of actors in Long Beach Playhouse Studio’s Cabaret exudes in spades, making the show both thrilling and chilling, especially given the rising prejudices of our own time and place.
With its book by Joe Masteroff, based on a 1951 play by John Van Drute– itself based on a 1939 novel by Christopher Isherwood– and set to music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebbs, Cabaret is richly provocative. This ambitious production, ably directed by Sean Gray, accentuates bisexuality, humor (sometimes dark) and the poignancy of survival and loss.
The time is 1930 Berlin, home of the Kit Kat Club, run by an enigmatic Emcee (an excellent Noah Wagner). The club’s racy song-and-dance performances contribute to the general feeling of decadence against which the rising Nazi Party garners support.
During the first half of the musical, we enjoy the very lively scenes of the cabaret and see the arrival of young American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Austin James), who soon finds himself smuggling secrets to Paris and sharing his room with plucky but pained English cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Courtney Riel Owens).
We are also introduced to Bradshaw’s long-suffering landlady, Fräulein Schneider (Lisa J. Salas), and her sweet, elderly suitor, Herr Schultz (a very natural Steve Shane), whose Jewishness eventually becomes an issue as the political climate worsens.
As the tide turns by the second act, the atmosphere is more austere, the characters more morose and shrill. Loss becomes inevitable. “Life is a cabaret,” sings Sally, seemingly against all hope.
Stephen Olear capably directs the live cabaret band while playing keyboard and accordion.
Choreography by Halley Hardy is sophisticated and zesty, as are the lingerie-and-leather costumes by Donna Fritsche.
Above all, though, it’s the self-assured cast that makes this production memorable.
Wagner perfectly embodies the Emcee role, performing in many of the numbers and lurking smugly and snidely in some of the other scenes as well, silent witness to unfolding events, perhaps to translate them to his stage.
Owens as Bowles is also excellently suited to her demanding and emotional part, her English accent impeccable as she sings songs from the naughty “Don’t Tell Mama” to the poignant “Maybe This Time,” all the while navigating her increasingly desperate circumstances.
Equally, the 10 Kit Kat Club performers sing and dance with bravado. One of them, Gabrielle Gutierrez, does double-time as busy prostitute Fräulein Kost, whose fortune seems to rise with the Nazi Party. Another, Cisco Morales, plays his character Bobby with heartbreakingly delicate vulnerability.
Bobby is also one of the characters for whom the “nudity” warning signs in the lobby applies. Those signs also forewarn audiences about the “the rise of fascism” in the play. After experiencing this deliciously engaging yet riveting production of Cabaret, you’ll know why you’re being cautioned about that, even here and now.
Cabaret continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Nov. 18, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $20 to $24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org.