Arlington, Va.’s 5-year-old Signature Theater has built a reputation for consistency and innovation under its 33-year-old artistic director, Eric Schaeffer. Not only does it steal the lime-light from bigger theaters at local awards time, but his personal relationship with songwriter Stephen Sondheim has landed the 126-seat theater the area premiere of several coveted musicals including “Assassins” in 1993. The current season wraps with the first professional production of Sondheim’s “Passion” outside of New York. Recent world premieres include last season’s “Otabenga” and the upcoming “Take My Life in Your Hands” by playwright Paulette Laufer.
Signature’s current production of the musical “Cabaret” offers an excellent example of the director’s inventiveness. Lured by the musical’s strengths but determined to peel off the sugar coating, Schaeffer has emphasized the seediness of the real pre-World War II Berlin cabaret scene and added depth to characters and story. The result is an entirely new version of the classic musical.
Working from the 1987 revised book, Schaeffer made changes to the score, adding elements from the 1966 version and the 1972 film. For example, he snipped “The Telephone Song” after deciding it didn’t advance the action, and replaced it with “Mein Herr” from the film. The tunes “Maybe This Time,” “Money” and “I Don’t Care Much” were also added from the pic. In addition, he used new orchestrations by Michael Gibson allowing the use of a sevenpiece orchestra.
No alterations were made in the book, but emphasis was added to important themes of the period, especially the ominous specter of Nazism. The relationship between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz was enhanced to dramatize the human loss when Schneider succumbs to pressure to call off the marriage to her Jewish fiance.
The effect is just right. Signature’s Kit Kat Club is a gritty room where entertainment is provided by beefy frauleins (one of whom is male) who get by on one seedy costume apiece. Lou Stancari’s minimal set is done completely in grays and black, except for the bright red Nazi banner.
Presiding over the club is a delightfully lecherous emcee (Steven Cupo). Dressed in eerie makeup and anxious to shock, this orally fixated fellow sets the tone immediately with a provocative version of the show-opening “Willkommen.” Cupo is a delight as he slinks through numbers, offering a strong voice and raunchy business that is well removed from the Joel Grey standard.
Among other principals, Megan Lawrence is convincing as the foot-loose singer Sally Bowles. She excels in “Don’t Tell Momma,” “Maybe This Time” and, most of all, “Cabaret.” But Mark Sparrow is weak as the visiting American, a role that lacks spunk even in the best of hands. Patricia Pearce and Lawrence Redmond bring just the right touch to the elderly love birds, and Kathryn Silvia d’Alelio is perky as the prostitute.
The appeal of this dark but spunky production is maximized in Signature’s intimate space, where the entire audience has a ringside seat. It would be far less effective in a larger house.