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Do Tell Mama to Come to this 'Cabaret'

Just as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show swallows Annie Get Your Gun, the Kit Kat Klub engulfs a backstage story that becomes a show within a show in Cabaret. The conflation of illusion and delusion cleverly mirrors the musical’s anti-heroine: the cocaine-snorting, high-living, lonely hedonist Sally Bowles, a modern Camille. For Sally, art and life are indistinguishable—and master director David Bell confuses them with a vengeance at the Marriott Theatre. The life-vs.-art construction of the 1966 musical is brilliant (John Kander, music, Fred Ebb, lyrics and Joe Masteroff, book): Are the songs the bedrock reality here, wryly commenting on the “coming of age” tale of an American novelist finding his story at the cost of his innocence? Or is the story all the excuse the songs need?

Based on gay author Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Diaries, Cabaret is a cautionary tale about getting caught up in history and getting out just in time. The author’s surrogate, the now-straight Clifford Bradshaw, slowly gets tangled in the dirty doings of 1929 Berlin, enjoying its last fling of freedom before the Weimar Republic succumbs to the Third Reich. Cliff doggedly bears witness to his own seduction as a poor expatriate; first as a smuggler employed by the infamous Ernst Ludwig, then as a bodymate (no soul here) with self-destructive Sally, a clueless goodtime girl who won’t let the party end. Her goal: To be the “happiest corpse you've ever seen.” Equally entrapped by the bad times that will doom millions are Cliff’s landlady Fraulein Schneider and her ersatz lover Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit monger who forlornly hopes that being born German will protect him from the Brown Shirts.

There are menacing hints at the horrors ahead throughout, and the corruption chronicled by this bittersweet memory musical is as subtle as the evolution of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” the lovely imaginary folk song which becomes a horrible anthem for the goose-stepping, Swastika-loving, ever-saluting Nazi bullies and the bad Germans who support them. Cleaner in comparison is the decadence evoked by the opportunistic Emcee: His numbers also devolve from a mean romp performed to salacious silhouettes seen through moving bedsheets, “Two Ladies,” to the anti-Semitic bestiality ballad “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes.”

Marriott’s suitably dark revival sugarcoats nothing in this 140-minute dance of death. Evoked by mannequins gazing down at the Kit Kat Klub and Clifford’s small world, the action swirls in furtive and creepy dance numbers like “Money,” choreographed by Matt Raftery as if he just found a new circle of Hell.

Bell’s staging is almost a monument to German efficiency. Its course of conduct is so clear it feels almost inevitable. Patrick Sarb’s self-effacing Clifford is, as required, all observations and reactions, his “camera” (i.e., typewriter) taking all in and judging only at the end. In contrast, Megan Sikora’s ebullient Sally is a neurotic nova bound to burn out: Her “Cabaret” is no anthem of resilience or survival but the happiest suicide note put to song.

The ever wonderful Annabel Armour perfectly conveys Fraulein Schneider’s divided loyalties, a case history of how love does not conquer all. She’s intimately matched by Craig Spidle’s heartbreaking Schultz (I’ve never seen the first act finale so painfully poignant as a briefly happy Schultz watches in confusion, then horror, as his engagement party turns into an ugly first draft of Hitler’s rise to power). Somewhat subdued as the androgynous Emcee, Stephen Schellhardt belts out the ever darker “Wilkommen” as if it were a ticket to the tomb. Jameson Cooper sinks into infamy as the venal Ernst. Finally, it’s always fascinating to remember that the Nazi’s chief female supporter (here deftly done by Christine Sherrill) is a whore.

Interestingly, fans will note that this version drops “The Telephone Song” and “Meeskite,” but adds three songs from the film version, as well as the Emcee’s lesser known “I Don’t Care Much,” sweetly sung by the principals and echoing Schneider’s earlier “So What?” But, as always, for the audience the most demanding number remains the haunting “What Would You Do?”