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Put Down Your Knitting and Visit This Cabaret

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Willkommen and leave your troubles at the door. After a day spent reeling over the latest ISIS attack, this one in Brussels, is there any greater desire than to shut out the world and lose yourself for a couple of hours in the theater? Cabaret, here brought to us in terrific touring splendor by Roundabout Theatre Company, may promise nothing but beautiful (and naughty) girls and boys to ease our minds, but beware, we are told. Evil cares not one whit for our blind eyes. If left unnoticed (or unchecked), evil will own not simply our inability to see, but all our other senses as well.

But wow, the lesson is a deliciously sordid one thanks to Roundabout’s 2014 restaging of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s 1998 Tony-winning production of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s classic musical. The setting is Berlin in 1930, a party town for all manner of alternative tastes and proclivities. But with the rising power of the Nazis, the fun is about to come to an end. Meanwhile, the patrons of the Kit Kat Klub continue to sing and dance in bawdy fashion, blissfully ignoring the evil lurking just outside their door.

But no matter where the action takes place, this is a Cabaret not afraid to throw off the glitz for grit. Or get dirty. In fact, everything onstage, from the set to the 17 musicians (cleverly on view atop the upper tier of a bisected stage) to the actors, looks in need of a good scrubbing. These are dark times and we’re meant to know it. We’re also meant to know that despite the scanty clothing and dirty dancing of the Kit Kat girls, these are not video vixens. Amped-up sexuality in this case means not twerking or duck lipping. These ladies thrust and grind and hump with the unpretty aggression of world-weariness that brings an astonishing rawness to the sexuality on display. The irony is not lost that in 2016, Cabaret’s plot points around bisexuality and gay men seem tame, but take away the sleek porn look of a woman dancing, and it’s astonishing.

Also astonishing are several of the cast members who help to bring this darkly entertaining effort to life. Most notable is our Emcee, played with dripping, oily sarcasm by Randy Harrison. Whether belting out naughty ditties in the club, alternately mocking and praising the audience, or making us squirm as he shows us the consequence of our willful ignorance, Harrison commands the stage and has our uncomfortable attention right up to the (still) shocking end.

While most of Cabaret works on an allegorical level, the narrative concerning the two couples that populate the musical also should impress for the whole thing to hold together. And it’s here that this production falters.

German landlady Fräulein Schneider (a splendidly nuanced Shannon Cochran) and Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson oozing teddy-bear warmth) terrifically navigate their late-in-life falling in love with some of the show’s knockout musical numbers. We are instantly smitten with the pair, heartbroken/angry when Schultz’s Jewishness tears them apart and fearful of what impending history will mean for each of them.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the commitment-phobic Kit Kat headliner, Sally Bowles (a sparkless Andrea Gross), and American writer Clifford Bradshaw (an utterly forgettable Lee Aaron Rosen). This pair of "wrong for each other but can’t help themselves" misfits go through the motions set out for them in the show. They fight. They break up. They’re fine again. But it all feels like an annoyance, distracting us from the better parts of the production. Gross does impress with her final defiant number bearing the show’s title, but even so, it reads like a single moment as opposed to the last hurrah of a character we’ve been watching for two hours.

So, boo-hoo. Nothing’s perfect, our Emcee might say. And thankfully the lackluster two central characters in this case don’t take away from the atmospheric/emotional/intellectual punch that this Cabaret delivers. We may not be living in Nazi-era Germany, but the repercussions of political/social self-delusion when it comes to our present world abound. Life was not as is not a Cabaret, my friend. But by all means, do visit this one, open your eyes and take a good look around.

Cabaret continues through March 27 at The Hobby Center for Performing Arts, 800 Bagby.. Purchase tickets at thehobbycenter.org   $50-$115.

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