Creating a sense of the escalating menace outside Berlin’s tawdry Kit Kat Klub is essential to successful stagings of the classic John Kander and Fred Ebb musical “Cabaret.” Through Aug. 20, The Cape Playhouse presents a stellar production that mixes humor, energy, sexual bravado, and enough edge to send a chill down the spine.
Hunter Foster, who directed the Cape Playhouse’s elegant production of “My Fair Lady” last season, delivers this gem, fittingly, in the Dennis theater’s 90th year (it’s the oldest continuously operating summer theater in the country). His “Cabaret” incorporates elements from recent Broadway revivals as well as the 1972 film (which added the great songs “Maybe This Time” and “Mein Herr”), giving his version the perfect balance of timely and timeless.
The stage is dominated by a crimson circular curtain that rises on the seedy little bubble of the Kit Kat Klub, presided over by the Emcee (Kim David Smith), a preening performer who also watches over the unfolding action. Boyishly handsome, Smith may not exude an aura of danger as the Emcee pronounces that “in here, life is beautiful” despite the growing threat of the Nazis in late Weimar Germany. But he’s got the perfect voice and androgynous vibe to make him a memorable Emcee. When he appears bare chested in a tuxedo jacket, his muscular legs protruding from shorts, Smith suggests a cross between Marlene Dietrich and David Bowie.
Among the performers at the club is the “toast of Mayfair,” Sally Bowles (Stephanie Gibson). From her lively opening number, “Don’t Tell Mama,” to the salacious “Mein Herr,” impressively choreographed by Lisa Shriver as a precise swirl of foot-stomping cabaret boys and girls perched on chairs, Gibson nails Sally’s desperation and self-preservation. Two musical showstoppers display not only her vocal chops but also her acting ability: the plaintive “Maybe This Time,” which reveals Sally’s hopes for love, and the final, title song, an anthem of delusion and defiance.
Based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I Am a Camera,” which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” “Cabaret” opens with American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Nick Spangler) arriving in Berlin on New Year’s Eve, 1929. He lands in a rooming house run by Fräulein Schneider (Toni DiBuono) and quickly befriends fellow boarder Ernst Ludwig (Tally Sessions), who introduces him to Sally and Berlin’s demimonde. This “Cabaret” puts Cliff’s bisexuality front and center; his attraction to the charismatic but manipulative Sally is his own desperate need to leave his troubles behind. To pay for his new, decadent lifestyle, Cliff agrees to run shady errands abroad for Ludwig, part of the mercenary transactions gleefully skewed by the Emcee in the song “Money.”
Audiences who know “Cabaret” mostly from Bob Fosse’s trenchant, Oscar-winning film may not realize how different the stage version is. Fosse jettisoned the subplot of the tender romance between Fräulein Schneider and the gentlemanly Herr Schultz (Lenny Wolpe), a Jewish fruit vendor. DiBuono and Wolpe create warmth and chemistry with their duets, “It Couldn’t Please Me More (A Pineapple)” and the sublime “Married.” Besides those memorable songs, DiBuono aces Fräulein Schneider’s solos “So What?” and her defense and plea, “What Would You Do?”
Act One ends with an engagement party for Schneider and Schultz, where it’s lowly prostitute Fräulein Kost (Playhouse favorite Jennifer Cody, terrific here) who fans anti-Semitic flames with a reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” with the ordinary Germans at the party singing with increasing anger. We don’t really need Hitler’s exhortations in the distance, but it does add to the darkening mood.
The band, under the direction of Paul Masse, is first-rate, as are David Arsenault’s sets, Gail Baldoni’s costumes, John Bartenstein’s lighting, and Jeff Sherwood’s sound, all pulled by Foster into a seamless production. In the finale, the principal characters join the Emcee onstage to repeat the lies they’ve told themselves to dismiss the Nazi threat, including Sally’s declaration to Cliff that it’s just politics and has nothing to do with them. With a portentous drum roll and cymbal crash, the lights go out — and the chill in the air is palpable.
Book by Joe Masteroff. Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Directed by Hunter Foster. At the Cape Playhouse, Dennis, through Aug. 20. Tickets: 508-385-3911, www.capeplayhouse.comLoren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.