Given Aimee Doherty’s track record, the reaction in this corner to the news that she would play Sally Bowles in “Cabaret’’ was an immediate “Hmm, that could be special.’’
It is. Doherty seizes the role of the down-but-not-out Sally as if it’s always belonged to her — though of course in the public mind it will always be the artistic property of a certain Liza with a Z — and proceeds to deliver a performance at Moonbox Productions that ranges skillfully across all the contradictory facets of Sally’s personality.
Doherty doesn’t just convey Sally’s teasing sexuality with a sultry “Don’t Tell Mama’’ in Act 1 and her I-will-survive defiance with a dynamite Act 2 rendition of the title tune; she also captures the inner turbulence and ragged edge of desperation that lie beneath all of Sally’s flamboyant self-dramatization and self-assurance, and that are given aching voice in “Maybe This Time.’’ In Doherty’s raw portrayal, it seems more than coincidental that Sally’s favorite word is “desperately’’ (“I do hope I’m not going to fall desperately in love with you,’’ the British singer coyly tells the American writer Clifford Bradshaw early in their doomed relationship).
If no one else in the principal Moonbox cast quite matches the caliber of Doherty’s performance, none is less than capable in Rachel Bertone’s darkly compelling production of the Kander & Ebb classic, which unfolds in early 1930s Berlin as the Nazis are steadily rising to power while the denizens of the Kit Kat Klub frolic away, oblivious to danger until it materializes in their midst.
Phil Tayler’s performance as the leering Emcee owes a little too much to Joel Grey’s storied portrayal, but ultimately gathers its own decadent, dangerous force. Jared Troilo, as Clifford, accentuates the extent to which he is lost and adrift, his goal of writing a novel always hovering out of reach. Troilo also makes sure we see Clifford’s selfishness and his dark side, the latter manifested when he pushes Sally in one scene and slaps her in another. As their landlady, Fraulein Schneider, Maryann Zschau showcases a strong, clear, and expressive voice in the fatalistic “So What?,’’ and gives Schneider a sorrowful demeanor that is especially poignant when the landlady confronts the limits of her own courage.
Giving creditable if not particularly memorable performances are Ray O’Hare as Herr Schultz, the Jewish owner of a fruit store who becomes smitten with Fraulein Schneider and who clings to the naive and tragic belief that his native country of Germany will eventually come to its senses; Dan Prior as Ernst Ludwig, who enlists Clifford to smuggle goods for him, only revealing later that he is a Nazi; and Joy Clark as Fraulein Kost, a prostitute who lives in Fraulein Schneider’s boardinghouse.
With a chandelier overhead tilted in one direction and the Kit Kat Klub sign canted in the other, the ominous set design by Janie E. Howland accentuates a sense of dislocation and a world knocked askew. The eight-member band, led by music director and piano player Dan Rodriguez, pulls out all the stops (their performance of the Entr’acte is a particular scorcher).
Bertone, whose production of “In the Heights’’ at Wheelock Family Theatre was one of the high points of last year, frames the familiar material of “Cabaret’’ in ways that emphasize the escalating atmosphere of dread. Dancers in a kick-line number in Act 2 slowly morph into goose-stepping, while Tayler’s Emcee gesticulates, Hitler-like, from a platform above. But when Clifford is beaten after standing up to Ernst, the Emcee writhes on the stage as if he’s being beaten himself, a stand-in for the widening circle of victims.
And Sally Bowles? Alas, for all her hectic movements, she’s not going anywhere.
Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Joe Masteroff. Directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone. Music direction, Dan Rodriguez. Presented by Moonbox Productions. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through April 29. Tickets: $60, 617-933-8600, www.moonboxproductions.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin