Liza Minnelli's brassy, blowsy number "Cabaret" has become such a big-money anthem over the years - all glamour and glitz - it's possible to forget where the song came from in the first place: a dark 1966 musical set in a seedy Berlin nightclub on the eve of the Nazis' rise to power. "Cabaret" is a remarkable, courageous confluence of sexual decadence, political horror, and terrific songs - a musical about anti-Semitism! - that wants to leave you chilled to the bone and humming refrains.
There are moments of menace and flashes of abandon in New Repertory Theatre's staging, which marks Rick Lombardo's final show before the company's producing artistic director leaves for good to take the helm at the San Jose Repertory Theatre. But this is a largely low-wattage production - good-natured and agreeable until it's time for a peek at a swastika. What's missing is a palpable underbelly: the seamy buzz and perpetual sense of foreboding that would lend depth to the show's evocation of prewar German indifference.
John Kuntz's Emcee is creepy, but in a clownish sort of way. At home in a tuxedo, a diaper, or garters and teddy, Kuntz is a ghoulishly congenial host who presides over a voluptuous gaggle of writhing girls in Berlin's Kit Kat Klub, which in set designer Peter Colao's hands boasts a properly seedy assortment of dingy wood, old mirrors, faded brass, and cheap art. The band, all its visible members in drag, is stationed above the stage, and the play's other locales - Fraulein Schneider's rooming house, Herr Schultz's fruit market, and a train car - roll in and out of the club's interior with ingenious simplicity and metaphorical resonance.
This is where the American writer Cliff Bradshaw, played with maximal earnestness by David Krinitt, encounters the British singer Sally Bowles. Aimee Doherty can't quite tamp down her inner ingenue, which continually threatens to extinguish the flickers of complexity and vulnerability she brings to the role of Sally. She belts everything with a smile on her face, including the penultimate title song, substituting strong tones for the desperate, tattered resolve the theatrical and historical moment calls for.
Similarly, the denizens of the Kit Kat Klub seem to inhabit a world defined more by exuberant sexuality than a frantically gathering storm. The girls are hale and hearty, and for all the wiggling and jiggling, hardly decadent. So sympathetic - bumbling, really - is the Emcee that his occasional portentous outbursts - pressing a toothbrush moustache to his lip, for instance - come off as unsavory slapstick rather than loaded commentary.
The romantic subplot involving Schultz, an elderly Jew, and Schneider, his non-Jewish betrothed, involves at least one too many sentimental duets, but this relationship - and deeply felt performances from Paul. D. Farwell and Cheryl McMahon - supplies wonderfully humane counterpoint to the stylized world of the club. Lombardo has a real feel for the power in that contrast, and in one of the show's most gripping sequences he cuts from the pair crooning their affection in a well-lit parlor ("It Couldn't Please Me More") to the Kit Kat waiters at the top of a darkened stairway singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" in lockstep - as a silent newsreel of Adolf Hitler is projected onto the floorboards.
Paul Giragos brings insidious wit to his role as Ernst; audible gasps met the removal of his overcoat to reveal a Nazi armband at the end of Act I. And Shannon Lee Jones's sailor-loving Kost delivers tawdry grit that - artfully applied all over - would serve this production well. It finally arrives on a grand scale at the finish, when Lombardo looses his grip on the literal and fills the Kit Kat club with a goose-stepping chorus line of bruised dancers, hedonists-turned-Nazis, and the echoing voices of the doomed lovers. The music turns dissonant. The Kit Kat girls slap on yellow stars. Sally belts a final, chin-up refrain as the club's electricity powers down and arms shoot into the air. Chilling and tuneful, indeed.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.