THEATER REVIEW: Cygnet stages a stellar “Cabaret”

The Emcee in Cygnet Theatre’s terrific “Cabaret” enters wearing a wolf mask – an ominous foreshadowing of things to come, and an inkling that this production may not be quite like any you’ve seen.

For one thing, this Emcee is female – the multitalented Karson St. John – lithe, lissome and scary as all get-out in that black eye makeup.

On Sean Fanning’s magnificently decaying dual-level set (the orchestra is up above), this story of dope, drink and decadence is played out in those last days of the Weimar Republic, before the darkness of Nazism descended on Germany.

Sean Murray (a fine Emcee himself back in the day) directs this production – Cygnet’s largest to date, with a cast of 15 – with a sure hand and a few twists of his own.

The plot (based on John Van Druten’s play “I Am A Camera” and Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin”) concerns songbird and heroin addict Sally Bowles (Joy Yandell), headliner in a seedy Berlin dive called the Kit Kat Klub.

American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Charlie Reuter), a young, innocent newcomer, will be introduced to Berlin nightlife (including Sally) by his new friend, Berliner Ernst Ludwig (Jason Heil), whom he’d met on the train. Clifford will soon find that many things are not as they seem.

On Ludwig’s recommendation, Clifford takes a room with landlady Fräulein Schneider (Linda Libby), whose claims to run a quiet house are belied by the presence of the lively Fräulein Kost (Melissa Fernandes) and her endless parade of sailor boys.

Inside the Kit Kat Klub, debauchery is the rule – a welcome escape from the economic collapse outside that will result in the rise to power of the Nazis.

But for now, the general feeling is one of exhaustion rather than hope, echoed by Fräulein Schneider in her song “So What?” (“For the sun will rise/And the moon will set/And learn how to settle/For what you get/It will all go on/If we’re here or not/So who cares? So what?”). And if drink, smoke and drugs can help dull the ache, well, why not?

Still, the touching subplot of Fräulein Schneider and her romance with fruit merchant Herr Schultz (Jim Chovick) provides the emotional heart -- and one of the best things about -- the show.

This version features a group of Kit Kat Boys as well as girls. Especially fetching is Tony Houck’s “Helga,” who goes through the motions and lifts his skirt with the boredom of someone who has done this too many times.

The approaching menace is indicated subtly but unmistakably in a tap-dance sequence with a beating going on just behind, and in a chilling (though gorgeous) rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” sung from orchestra level by a quartet featuring Jacob Caltrider’s spectacular countertenor voice.

I could carp that Mandell’s Sally is more irrepressible than terminally self-involved, or that Reuter’s Clifford seems a tad too much the blank slate.

But why, when there is so much to like about this production: David Brannen’s fabulous choreography, Shirley Pierson’s costumes, gradually losing color from wildly fanciful to black and white; Sean Fanning’s seedy set and Chris Rynne’s garish lighting, which also fades with time.

And everybody sings, dances and acts very well indeed.

Pity that in the end, the Emcee dons the wolf mask again, as the lights are about to go out for the “enemies” of Nazism. It’s extraordinarily effective.

The details

“Cabaret” plays through May 15 at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.

For tickets call (619) 337-1525 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.