Cabaret is not easy. The edgy 1967 musical by Joe Masterhoff, John Kander and Fred Ebb has never been simple to stage, and even when it's done right, it's not that easy to watch either—and that's good.
Novelist Christopher Isherwood's frank descriptions of 1930s Berlin—at the start of the Nazi's rise to power—were first transformed into a Broadway play in 1951 under the name I Am a Camera. That show was later reworked into the musical version we know today as Cabaret, packed with ear-catching, Tony-winning tunes and sexy song-and-dance routines set among the patrons and performers of Berlin's underground Kit Kat Klub. Many productions fail by attempting a kind of theatrical misdirection, drawing attention to the scandalous, entertaining parts, deliberately diminishing the downer parts—mainly everything to do with the Nazis, who often appear merely as generic bad guys. Boo. Hiss.
In the powerful new production that just opened at Sixth Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, visionary director David Lear puts as much energy into establishing a feeling of looming evil as he does into staging, with energetic choreography by Tony Gianchetta, the show's many fetchingly sin-soaked dance numbers. In Lear's hypersurrealist vision, the action is overseen by several eerily symbolic figures, evolving from light-hearted party animals into malevolent demons as Berlin falls further into the clutches of the Nazi party. In this Cabaret, the enemy isn't just Nazism; it's also the fearful nonresistance of otherwise good people.
As Sally Bowles, the fiercely frail English singer who takes a chance at love with a gentle American writer, Marjorie Rose Taylor brings all the raw, emotional intensity one could ask for, though her singing on opening night was frequently a bit pitchy. As the emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, Ralph Avalon is both frightening and seriously irresistible, adding flavors of Dr. Frankenfurter and Mephistopheles to his performance. Local favorite Mark Bradbury emphasizes the in-over-his-head naivete of Cliff Bradshaw, the blocked novelist who shares a bed, but little more, with the self-destructive Sally.
The entire cast is fully committed to Lear's vision, finding ways to play the spectrum of each character's battered humanity, despite some one-dimensional writing in the script. The ending is especially effective, as Lear's unflinching insistence on telling the whole truth comes to life. Instead of sending us away with a tune on our lips, as many productions attempt to do, Lear and company leave one with a final emotional kick in the gut—a kick some won't stop feeling for some time after.
'Cabaret' runs Thursday-Sunday through May 15 at the Sixth Street Playhouse. Showtimes vary. 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $22-$39. 707.523.4185.