by Clark Groome

1929 Berlin was the center of the Germany to which many Europeans and others went to enjoy its manifold and often illicit charms. This was the decade before the Great Depression and the rise of the Third Reich.

It is at this point in history that “Cabaret,” the musicalization of John Van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera” (which is based on Christopher Isherwood’s stories) is set.

With a book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, “Cabaret” is truly one of the American theater’s greatest achievements.

From the beginning when the Emcee welcomes everyone to the Kit Kat Klub with the now famous “Willkommen,” the show has an edge that should make anyone encountering it uncomfortable. As Germany goes from the hedonistic adoration of sex, booze and self-indulgence to adoration of Hitler and his message of hate, “Cabaret” gradually draws you in. It has a celebratory exterior that is only skin deep. Even in the show’s most genuinely joyous scene, the engagement party for Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, there is a hateful undercurrent that comes to life in the nationalistic anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

“Cabaret” is the opening production of the Arden Theatre Company’s 30th season. While the decision to mount the show was made months ago, the timing is scarily appropriate considering the nature of our political controversies and the potential of serious conflict with North Korea.

For the most part the generally good production just plays the show as written. There is a moment before Act II when the Emcee does make reference to today’s world, an underlining of the obvious that seemed unnecessary.

The version of the show at the Arden through Oct. 22 is the 1998 revival original done in London and later mounted to great success on Broadway. In it the relationship between the sexually ambivalent Clifford Bradshaw (the convincing Daniel Frederick) and Sally Bowles (the role made famous in the movie by Liza Minnelli here a bit underplayed by Charissa Hogeland) is less ambiguous. Not only is he smitten with Sally, but he also has a clearly steamy relationship with Bobby (Kevin John Murray), one of the Kit Kat Klub’s male dancers.

Leading the proceedings – and following in the famous footsteps of Joel Grey in the original and Alan Cumming in the 1998 revival – is John Jarboe. He was, for the most part, excellent although there were times when he was acting the part rather than inhabiting it.

The supporting cast is excellent. Best of the rest was Kenny Morris’ Herr Schultz. Mary Elizabeth Scallen’s Fraulein Schneider and Christopher Patrick Mullen’s Ernst were also very good. The ensemble was terrific, bringing Kander and Ebb’s glorious score convincingly to life.

As good as the cast was – and it was very good – the physical production was in many ways the star of the show. The Arden’s F. Otto Haas Stage was configured as a cabaret with tables surrounding the stage. The rest of the audience was in their regular seats but were often visited by members of the Kit Kat Klub’s ensemble, giving everyone the feeling they were in the Klub, not the theater.

Director Matthew Decker has assembled a superb design team: David P. Gordon (sets), Maria Shaplin (lighting), Olivera Gajic (costumes) and Jorge Cousineau (sound).

Musically, the show is under Alex Bechtel’s sure direction. Jenn Rose choreographed the appropriate and often quite sexy dances.

“Cabaret” is great theater. This production, while sometimes a tad overstated, is even more troubling than normal because there are so may inherent similarities to the world today.

For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org

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