Brad Oscar and company in Cabaret
(© Scott Suchman)
Brad Oscar and company in Cabaret
(© Scott Suchman)
Forty years after its Broadway debut, Cabaret still has legs -- covered in tattered fishnet, of course. With John Kander and Fred Ebb's affecting, story-propelling score and Joe Masteroff's book about the rise of the Nazis as relevant as ever, the landmark musical retains the power to thrill and chill. That's why it's so disappointing that Molly Smith's slightly naughty, sepia-toned staging of Cabaret at Arena Stage is merely entertaining instead of gripping. Smith's tentativeness in exploiting the script's depravity makes this a surprisingly tame outing; men in drag with pouty expressions are about as far as she's willing to go in shocking the audience.

When this production does succeed, it's on the strength of the score and a handful of effective performances -- but not the ones you might expect. Broadway star Brad Oscar and Meg Gillentine, both beloved in last season's Arena Stage production of Damn Yankees, don't provide the needed brilliant star turns as the Emcee and nightclub singer Sally Bowles. In fact, there are few sparks from either performer.

As the show begins, Clifford Bradshaw (Glen Seven Allen) has arrived in Berlin on the eve of 1931. The Nazis are taking power, but "life is beautiful" in a shabby cabaret. He falls in love with second-rate performer Sally Bowles, and soon the two are living together in a rundown rooming house. Sally's irresponsible lifestyle begins to engulf Cliff even as the Nazi poison engulfs Germany. Masteroff's book -- based on the John Van Druten play I Am a Camera, which in turn was based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories -- needs no special directorial help to strike a chord with present-day American audiences. The parallels between Germans blithely ignoring the erosion of their rights until it is too late and what is now happening in the United States, which Smith believes is in the grip of Constitution-ignoring theocrats, are quite obvious.

Yet Smith apparently feels the need to make sure we "get it." Thus, when Bradshaw is beaten by Nazi thugs, she interrupts the action with a recreation of the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture scenes with which we're all too familiar. This is overkill, and it makes curious Smith's failure to take advantage of the other potent moments in the show. For example, as the Berliners fall under the hypnotic charms of Nazism in the stirring but ultimately chilling anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," her blocking neglects to highlight the ostracism of the Jewish Herr Schultz (Walter Charles) by his own party guests.

Oscar offers little personality as the androgynous Emcee, and his singing on opening night occasionally lacked power and clarity. With his shaved head and blackened eyes, he seems not so much a decadent creature of the night but more like the affable Uncle Fester from The Addams Family. Gillentine's performance lacks sensuousness and neurotic self-absorption. Allen is less leading man than juvenile lead, although he sings beautifully.

More successful are local stalwarts Sherri L. Edelin, comically colorful as prostitute Fraulein Kost; and J. Fred Shiffman as Bradshaw's pal and burgeoning Nazi Ernst Ludwig, superbly demonstrating the banality of evil. As Herr Schultz, Charles give us a poignant portrait of a decent man who is unable to comprehend the danger that looms about him.

Despite its flaws, this Cabaret is a great-sounding show, with George Fulginiti-Shakar leading a tight, cabaret-style band. Designer Anne Patterson's dada-inspired, unit set combines rooming house and nightclub on a multi-level playing space.

The production proves that a strong directorial concept can be both a plus and a minus. After the exciting opening number, "Willkommen," the Emcee reclines on the floor as a toy train begins crossing the stage. He languidly lifts his leg as it approaches, allowing it to pass while the lighting shifts to reveal the train interior, with Bradshaw coming to Berlin. It's a clever transition. But at the end of the show, when the stage darkens and the train makes a return trip as people are being sent off to concentration camps, the use of the toy prop trivializes the somber moment and blunts the finale of this still-powerful musical.