Set during the rise of Nazi Germany, “Cabaret” follows several characters in and around the seedy Berlin Kit Kat Club. As the country’s political climate shifts toward fear and fascism, everyone must decide whether to flee or stay and face the music. Directed by B.T. McNicholl and based on the revival staging by silver screen giants Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “American Beauty”) and Rob Marshall (“Into the Woods,” “Chicago”), “Cabaret” is a beautifully simple yet ominous play within a play.
As the club’s master of ceremonies and story narrator of sorts, Jon Peterson is chiseled and charming. He restrains himself from broad, flamboyant gestures, instead focusing his emotions through his eyes. While his first act songs — including “Willkommen,” “Two Ladies” and “Money” — are all show highlights, Peterson is devastatingly effective in Act II. As his clownish makeup begins to run, Peterson’s call to “leave your troubles behind” sounds especially desperate. His final costume change at the show’s conclusion is an emotional gut punch.
As the show’s young loving couple, American author Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley) and British lass Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin) have decent chemistry in Act I. Larkin’s Bowles is a spoiled, rebellious girl who can’t see the writing on the wall. But Bradshaw can, and his breakup with Bowles in Act Two is heartbreaking.
But the strongest performances come from Mary Gordon Murray as landlord Fräulein Schneider and Scott Robertson as the Jewish fruit salesman Herr Schultz. In community and school pro- ductions of “Cabaret,” this old couple is often the weak link of the show. Here, the late-in-life romance between Schneider and Schultz is the emotional glue of the show, anchoring the first act especially with the song “It Couldn’t Please Me More.” Murray gets a chance to blow the audience away with “What Would You Do?” in Act II.
The show’s strongest elements are in the background from the tight — and shirtless — orchestra directed by Robert Cookman, the piercing and elemental lighting designed by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari, and the minimalist metallic set designed by Robert Brill, which allows the orchestra and master of ceremonies to gaze upon the action below.
Most surprising is that the tamest element of the show is the choreography. Sharp and clean as it is, its bawdy gender fluidity feels common in 2017. Sadly, the part of the show that feels least dated is the rise of racist nationalism.
“Cabaret” Roundabout Theatre Co.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21-Thursday, Feb. 23; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26
Tickets start at $41/$28 students
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com