At 50, “Cabaret” is showing no signs of age.
The dark musical set in 1930s Berlin, as the Nazis were gaining power, still has plenty to say to audiences. And the production that premiered at the Orpheum Theater on Thursday — a tour of the 2014 Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of the show — delivered its message in a more gritty, raw and decadent way than some of its predecessors.
The show has several plotlines: It follows the crowd at the Kit Kat Club, a seedy nightclub that serves as a metaphor for political rumblings in Weimar Germany, including the club’s androgynous master of ceremonies (Randy Harrison).
It also focuses on a love story between writer Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley) and club singer Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss). And it has a subplot concerning the romance between Fraulein Schneider, the proprietor of Bradshaw’s boarding house (Mary Gordon Murray) and Herr Schultz, the Jewish owner of a fruit market (Scott Robertson).
In 1966, the play’s frank subject matter shocked audiences. It deals with topics such as abortion and the fate of Jewish people at the hand of the Nazis, not the stuff of most musicals at the time.
The Roundabout production — actually a revival of Sam Mendes’ 1998 revival — kicks it up a notch, with suggestive dances, a scene with simulated sex acts in shadows behind a sheet and very brief nudity at the end of the first act.
In short, it’s not safe for kids (or maybe even for some adults, if the gasping woman behind me was any indication). But it also doesn’t hide what it is: advance publicity promised a daring and decadent experience.
It’s also a rewarding one, with excellent vocal work throughout. Harrison is sly and entertaining as the emcee and Goss is alternately bright and world-weary as Bowles. Her rendition of “Maybe This Time” was stunning.
My personal favorite, however, was the sad and sweet romance between the middle-aged landlady and the store proprietor, a sharp contrast to the seamy elements of the club. They had one of the show’s best songs, the delightful “It Couldn’t Please Me More.” And Murray was one of the night’s vocal standouts.
Ensemble members doubled as orchestra musicians, perched on a platform above the stage. It was larger than most groups that accompany touring musicals, and perhaps the highlight of the show, especially on the instrumental version of the title song. I wondered how they cast that many actors who were so multi-talented.
The set was spare but effective — essentially some props and a backdrop with a few doors indicating the boardinghouse rooms.
For the show’s stunning final scene, however, the stage was transformed. It will force you to think about what director Mendes said “Cabaret” was really all about: “the central mystery of the 20th century — how Hitler could have happened.”
If you go, be prepared to ponder that for a while.