ST. PETERSBURG — Freefall Theatre was born to do Cabaret, the classic from the 1960s that combines show-biz razzle-dazzle with a dark political theme. The company, winding up its second full season, has shown a capacity under artistic director Eric Davis, who staged this production of the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical about Germany on the abyss, to bring a distinctive, bold vision (and the necessary resources) to make a splash in a wide range of theater, from reimagining old warhorses like Man of La Mancha to painting Shakespeare with a cartoony flair in The Comedy of Errors.
And now comes the piece de resistance of Freefall's irresistible rise. You're not going to see a better Cabaret, for which Davis and scenic designer Steve K. Mitchell have lovingly replicated a seedy nightclub, complete with tables for four with old-fashioned phones, a small circular stage and a big neon sign that flashes on at pivotal moments. (There is also conventional audience seating.) It's a thrillingly intimate experience. With attendance of 148, the performance I saw on Saturday night was sold out, and there was a real sense of occasion to the event.
Cabaret has two iconic roles, and they are in excellent hands, with Emilee Dupre as Sally Bowles and David Mann as the Emcee. Their story is presented as a memory play, set in 1945 with a flickering newsreel reporting the defeat of the Third Reich, as Mann's dazed-looking Emcee enters "the burned out husk of the Kit Kat Klub" in silence, smoke filling the dim space, to turn on a light over the piano and pick out a few notes. Gradually, as if in a dream — or a nightmare — figures materialize from the decadent heyday of 1930s Weimar Berlin, coming onstage to the ghostly refrain of "Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome."
Mann is an interactive Emcee, ad libbing with people seated at the cabaret tables ("Nice haircut!" he says, rubbing a man's head), or plopping into a woman's lap, but his presence is so marvelously theatrical that the obnoxiousness is all part and parcel of the performance. In a weird way, the campy Emcee is the audience's surrogate, or perhaps the chorus, one of the few characters in the play who appears to have a clue about what is actually going on as Hitler and the Nazis come to power, though he is too jaded to try to do anything about it. Mann's bleak lament in I Don't Care Much ("Feet don't waltz / When the roof caves in") is devastating. On the lighter side, his rendition of The Money Song seems to contain a sly reference to Tevye's If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof.
Dupre is a gorgeous ingenue, who spends much of the time in a flimsy black dress, but her Sally is acted with surprising subtlety, and traditionally boffo numbers, such as Mein Herr and Maybe This Time, are mined more for meaning than glamour in her performance. Her showstopper Cabaret is delivered with an arresting blend of razzmatazz, desperation and vulnerability. Sometimes her English accent sounds laid on a bit thick, but the kooky chanteuse is, after all, the ersatz "toast of Mayfair."
Cabaret provides a valuable lesson that theater doesn't have to follow a formula to be successful. It's an oddly structured play, with almost all the plot development taking place in the 90-minute first act, which is almost three times longer than the second act, but the lack of smoothly calculated proportion doesn't matter. Your attention never wavers as the backdrop of Germany's destruction is artfully depicted in the lives of the characters in Joe Masteroff's book, especially in the touching, dangerous courtship of landlady Fraulein Schneider (Roxanne Fay) by Herr Schultz (John Lombardi), a Jewish fruit seller.
In some ways, Schneider is the heart of Cabaret, as it dawns on her that Nazis are not monsters but instead are friends and neighbors, ordinary Germans, such as the residents of her rooming house. Fay, who has clearly listened to Lotte Lenya (the celebrated German cabaret singer and widow of Kurt Weill who originated the role of Schneider on Broadway), brings a warmly amused, philosophical interpretation to her world-weary songs So What and What Would You Do?
Cliff, played by Jim Sorensen, is the play's most problematic character, a young American novelist of ambiguous sexuality (though he is gay, he does sleep with Sally) who falls under the spell of pre-war Berlin but ultimately leaves in disgust. His famous speech, about him and Sally dancing and being fast asleep to the Nazi storm gathering around them, is delivered twice here, at the beginning and the end, where it is in the script.
Along with the tacky, exuberant Kit Kat girls and boys, the show has excellent performances by Larry Alexander as Ernst Ludwig, the charming mystery man who befriends Cliff, and Lee Anne Mathews as Fraulein Kost, the prostitute who rents a room from Schneider. Both reveal their true colors in the creepy patriotic anthem Tomorrow Belongs to Me.
Davis' staging and Cheryl Lee's choreography pull out all the stops with many clever, witty touches, such as the Hawaiian shirt-clad trio in It Couldn't Please Me More, with its pineapple poetry; one of the Two Ladies with a 5 o'clock shadow; and the Catholic nun habits and plaid schoolgirl outfits for Sally (wielding a ruler) and the Kit Kat dancers in Don't Tell Mama. Chronic musical theater fans will love the homage to Mel Brooks and The Producers in the big Nazi dance number at the top of Act 2.
Mike & Kathy Buck Designs did the brilliant costumes. Music director Michael Raabe is at the piano, leading an orchestra of percussion, reeds, bass and trumpet. The musicians are in costume and give the Kander score a funky ride.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.