When the national tour of the famous Sam Mendes-directed revival of “Cabaret” came through Austin last year, its message about the dangers of remaining blind to fascism resonated during the presidential primaries. Although the St. Edward’s University Department of Performing Arts’ new production of “Cabaret” at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre is, of course, less polished than a big-budget Broadway tour, it is perhaps all the more powerful for it, and certainly more disturbing given the current political climate.
“Cabaret,” with a book by Joe Masterhoff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, tells the story of a group of friends, neighbors and lovers in 1931 Berlin, just as the Nazi Party is rising to power. Its main storyline — the dual love stories of naďve American novelist Clifford Bradshaw with scandalous British cabaret singer Sally Bowles and German landlady Fraulein Schneider with Jewish-German shopkeeper Herr Schultz — is contrasted against wildly entertaining burlesque performances at the Kit Kat Club, helmed by an ambiguous and flamboyant Master of Ceremonies (known only as the Emcee).
“Cabaret” is starkly divided between a flirtatious first act, oozing with sex, and a second act that sees its characters coming to grips with the political reality that, though an important undercurrent, they had largely ignored throughout the first half. In this production, though, director/choreographer Danny Herman has toned down the first act’s over-the-top sexuality a bit, keeping it in the realm of the burlesque without engaging with the pornographic.
This proves to be a wise choice for two reasons. First, of course, is the young age of many of the performers. Second, and perhaps more importantly, by toning down the shock value of the sex in the first act, the first revelation of the full force of fascism at the end of Act One becomes even more shocking, and extremely disturbing.
The act division is so affecting here because the lead characters are so well drawn. Meredith McCall and Steve Ochoa, two of the professional actors working with the students, play Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz with such tenderness, humor and depth that watching them deal with the play’s political circumstances becomes a truly wrenching experience. The younger couple, Clifford (Owen Ziegler) and Sally (Emily Ott), face a more intimate sort of dilemma, though still driven by fine performances from the two student actors.
Ott is particularly at home during Bowles’ cabaret performances, where her charisma and showmanship truly shine. The Emcee, played by professional actor Jerreme Rodriguez, similarly steals the show whenever he is on stage, creating a version of the character that is slightly more clownish and less leering than traditional depictions, which makes for a delightful new way to view him.
There is powerful resonance between “Cabaret” and today’s politics, and this production takes full advantage of that fact. The impact of “Cabaret” has not lessened with age, and it serves as a potent and urgent reminder of the power of theater to arouse and disturb us with the dangers in our own world.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, with matinee performance 2 p.m. April 15, through April 15
Where: Mary Moody Northen Theatre, St. Edward’s University, 3001 S. Congress Ave.
Information: 512-448-8484, stedwards.edu/mary-moody-northen-theatre