For all audiences whose memories are too deeply engraved with images and performances from the original stageand film versions of “Cabaret,” Prague’s enfant terrible, director Petr Lebl, whips up a surprisingly reconceived and relevant production. Although some lines of logic fail, and numerous lines in the script have been rewritten, the show’s essence remains, for the benefit of first-timers, while those who have seen one too many clones of the original will be freshly stimulated.
The cast of about two dozen romps multilingually through the first half of the play on a cluttered pocket of a stage, moving more somberly through the short, bleak second act, as anarchy nearly bubbles to the surface in this youthfully inventive production. For foreigners in Prague, it’s an accessible show, with many numbers performed in English or German.
The production immediately upends old memories when the Master of Ceremonies (Eva Holubova) enters to introduce the show. More Marlene Dietrich than Joel Grey, Eva Holubova tosses off a bored rendition of the opening “Willkommen” that , in combination with her sunken, sallow face, tells us she’s been at this seedy spot for too many years. Barbora Hrzanova’s Sally Bowles is an ugly duckling with bags of personality. Most astonishing here is the foretold realization that Sally is on track to become another jaded M.C.
The casting of a woman as M.C. necessitates song reassignments. Here, Rudolph Schultz (Karel Dobry), the Jewish suitor of Fraulein Schneider (Jorga Kotrbova), is bizarrely — or ironically — assigned the numbers “Two Ladies” and “If You Could See Her.” But since Lebl’s interpretation extends the cabaret theme to embrace every song and even turns some of the spoken scenes into near-vaudeville skits, it’s not difficult to accept those changes.
It seems as if only the hall’s small size (the two adjoining cafes are bigger) prevented the director from uprooting the theater seats and planting tables and chairs to make the cabaret atmosphere complete.
Production numbers are occasionally flashy, but in general the choreography doesn’t match the direction in imaginativeness. Lebl’s rethinking of well-known plays owes much to his background in stage design. Here, chorus girls who appear first as nuns, stripping to attractive ’30s-style bathing costumes, sing the chillingly sweet “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” dressed as cute, poisonous mushrooms, a metaphor with multiple associations. “Money, Money, Money” carries product placement to new heights, with placards bearing the logos of the theater’s sponsors marched across the stage.
The latter expresses another of the production’s themes, wherein the rapid Westernization of new Czechs is mocked. Clifford Bradshaw (Radek Holub) resembles nothing so much as one of the army of open-faced American yuppie businessmen now so prevalent in Prague. “Telephone Song” satirizes the current obsession with state-of-the-art communications, as neon blue phones and endlessly stretching wires strangle the stage. Germans and Americans, dressed in matching cookie-cutter business suits, introduce themselves by rattling off names of their best-known exports. Lebl’s sardonic humor targets everyone.