In Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” an American innocent named Clifford Bradshaw takes a train to Berlin. Before he can even arrive, he is drawn into a steamy, hidden world of sexual desire tinged with political demagoguery.
Life may be a cabaret, old chum. It is also a condition in which love is frequently unrequited, outsiders can never belong to the club, and the scourge of bigotry never sleeps.
The essential duality of “Cabaret,” part sequins, part barbed wire, has never been more apparent, more chilling and urgent, than it is now in Serenbe Playhouse’s stellar production, starring and directed by Brian Clowdus, the theater’s founder and artistic director.
At once as brutal and ramrod straight as a goose-stepping soldier in a black trench coat, and as coquettish and glittered as a Kit Kat Klub harlot, Clowdus is the Emcee of this Faustian carnival of debauchery and empty thrills, which as it turns out is on a fast track to the Holocaust.
More of the school of Broadway’s Alan Cumming than original Emcee Joel Grey, Clowdus’ leggy, louche, forever winking and manipulative instigator exists to entertain and titillate. Without that, ladies and gents, the Emcee might as well be dead.
That’s his story.
But at its dark and tender heart, “Cabaret” is a series of interlocking love tales.
Clifford (Lee Osorio), perhaps without really wanting to, falls for the madcap, gin-swilling Sally Bowles (the lovely Molly Tynes), although he hardly fails to honor his attraction to the epicene boys of the Berlin demimonde.
Fraulein Schneider (Heidi Cline McKerley), the spinster who runs the boardinghouse where Clifford takes a room, has a tragic, short-lived romance with Herr Schultz (Robert Wayne), a Jewish fruit vendor who courts her with Spanish oranges and exotic pineapples.
Off in the margins, and rather the opposite of sweetness: The wonderfully dreadful Fraulein Kost (Deborah Bowman) has a bottomless supply of sailors in pursuit of her services. The strapping Ernst Ludwig (Edward McCreary) may be tall, blond and pretty, but beware: What really seduces him is the Fuhrer’s call for Aryan supremacy.
Funnily enough, the story happens not in a claustrophobic Berlin boite but on an outdoor stage under the dusky, magnificent and sometimes rainy skies of Serenbe.
Scenic designer Adam Koch creates a fabulous playground that puts the Kit Kat Klub in a neon-lit rectangle of balconies, VIP tables, a bar, and an upper-level orchestra pit, all nicely illumined by designer Kevin Frazier.
Erik Teague’s costumes for the ladies are stitched, beaded and embroidered to the nines. The 13-member chorus of Kit Kat riffraff, some of whom may be caught brushing their hands teasingly against audience members, are done up in audacious, gender-bending stockings and corsets.
As directed by Chris Brent Davis, the Kit Kat Band is in sublime form. The music is glorious. On the dance side, choreographer Bubba Carr brings a bit of Fosse razzle-dazzle and a bit of Cirque du Soleil to the spectacle.
It will be remarked that there’s not a bad performance in this company, that this is Serenbe Playhouse’s finest work to date. On those points, I would have to concur.
I would also be remiss if I did not single out McKerley’s absolutely heartbreaking turn as Fraulein Schneider, the ultimate survivor. I have been reviewing this trouper’s work for more than 15 years, in good times and bad. It couldn’t please me more to say this is her finest moment.
It’s not all that difficult to find a player who can deliver material with technical precision. But only a very seasoned, very gifted one can summon something from the depths of the soul, something drawn from the joy and sorrow of human experience.
There is something profound at play in this “Cabaret,” something burlesque; something harrowing. Fraulein Schneider has no answers for the eternal condition we call loneliness, only a searing question: “What would you do?”
8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Through Sept 3. $35-$60. Serenbe Playhouse, 10950 Hutcheson Ferry Road, Chattahoochee Hills. 770-463-1110, serenbeplayhouse.com.
Bottom line: Kander and Ebb classic reveals the ugly under the glamour.
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