There is not much for Cabaret to hang its hat on.
Most of the 1966 show’s musical numbers are aged and clunky (unlike the groovy Hairspray, Charleston Stage’s next main stage performance). And there’s not much comedy (unlike the hilarious 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, also on Charleston Stage’s calendar next season).
But two things will keep your tookus glued to that seat — a wonderfully revealing story about the end of the world and a hot, sexually charged performance by Brian J. Porter as the Emcee.
The musical is set in Berlin at the dawn of the Nazi movement. But you’re not greeted by an oppressive genocidal countryside. Our first glimpse is of Porter, strutting down the stage in nothing but suspenders and bright purple pants, welcoming the audience to the Kit Kat Club, the sexiest spot in all of the city. There are boys with boys and girls with girls … oh, and a few boys with girls, but who would pay to see that?
It’s the backdrop for wide-eyed Cliff’s first night in town. The young American novelist, played by Justin Tyler Lewis, ends up planting some roots in Berlin until the politics of the rising Nazi party have him heading for the door. It’s not an easy exit with gorgeous songstress Sally, played by Sara Claire Smith, pulling at his heartstrings.
Regardless of strong performances from the entire ensemble, you might question the price of admission through the first 45 minutes. Interludes at the Kit Kat Club offer all the entertainment you’re going to get, as the two couples at the center of the story struggle from one tired song to another (the obvious exception being Sally’s sassy entrance with “Don’t Tell Mama”).
No, it’s not until Lewis and three boys from the club offer a sweet rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” that you see the spark this material can offer. Then, the plain, bland story drives off a cliff before you even have a chance to buckle in.
Just a few minutes later, the curtain falls on the first act with a haunting reprisal of “Tomorrow,” and you’re pacing the floor for 10 minutes, anxiously anticipating Act Two. It doesn’t disappoint. The personal drama is thick with urgency and despair as the clock winds down on bohemian freedom in Berlin.
Then you throw in a bitter, show-stopping performance of “Cabaret” by Smith (a little more wistful than we remember Liza playing it, but strong, nonetheless). Follow that with the powerful, haunting last moments, and you’ll realize you got your money’s worth.
Porter should get some credit for the sex he sells through the entire show, but the rest goes to costume designer Barbara Young, who had the good sense to let Porter’s hot body in on the act, too.
But he’s not just a pretty face and a pretty chest and a pretty set of abs and … you get the idea. Porter plays the audience like there’s only one piece of candy in this world and he’s it. He gets some quality assistance from the Kit Kat dancers, including stand-out comedic performances from Jacqueline Kirchhoff and Christopher M. Diaz in “Two Ladies,” and an uncredited actor in a monkey suit for “If You Could See Her.”
The set design from Julian Wiles and Stefanie Christensen is first-class and rivals some of the touring shows we’ve seen come to town.
Director Marybeth Clark should be applauded for including two changes introduced in the ’98 revival: A stronger ending and a sexier Emcee. But she omitted a personal favorite by ignoring “Maybe This Time,” a terrific song created for the film version.