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Current events make this entertaining 'Cabaret' required viewing

Last week, it was reported that the leader of Chechnya wants to exterminate the country's LGBT population before the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month of Islam. The week before that, we learned that gay men had already been sent to concentration camps, where they were tortured and beaten, humiliated beyond repair. Some are alleged to have been killed.

How does this information belong in a theater review, you ask?

Because there is a narrow gap between the facts of modern-day genocide, in Chechnya and elsewhere, and the choreographed and costumed version of the Holocaust presented in John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff’s “Cabaret.” And the gap is shrinking by the day. A new tour of Roundabout Theatre’s definitive 1998 production (and 2014 remount) runs through April 30 in Shea’s Performing Arts Center. You cannot afford to miss it.

It should be enough that this thrilling production of the popular 1966 musical is entertaining, thanks to a scintillating cast and knockout orchestra. The handful of flashy production numbers do not disappoint. You might even find it tolerable to endure an uncomfortable history lesson in the process. But it is, today, an arresting piece of harrowing, alarming art.

Although not a comedy, “Cabaret” can be measured by what you laugh at. Two ladies in a relationship? A gorilla wearing a dress? A pack of hungry artists grabbing at cash? There’s a giant proverbial mirror hanging over our heads. If you laugh too much, you might be in on the joke. This is something for you to consider on the ride home. When you factor in current events, the show’s moralistic lessons gain new dimension; theater practically turns into documentary.

Director BT McNicholl does a superb job upholding Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s original creation, which re-casts Berlin’s decadent Kit Kat Club as a seedy den of debauchery and fading glory, with flickering light bulbs and unkempt dancers. A few of them might moonlight in a backroom for the right amount.

Marshall’s clever choreography punctuates Mendes’s dark dramaturgy. Some of Marshall’s signature touches, as well as Peggy Einsenhauer’s cinematic lighting, might look familiar if you’ve seen his Oscar-winning film version of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago”—another theater masterpiece. By design, the show is nearly fool-proof. Even with flaws, the story tells itself.

But a significant problem here, regrettably, is Leigh Ann Larkin’s performance as aspiring performer Sally Bowles. Sally has been portrayed many ways before, most often as a lush with an overcompensating veneer and willful ignorance. In Bob Fosse’s stunning 1972 film, Liza Minnelli got to play Sally as both an American and a fantastic performer, naturally. These Hollywood edits covered up Sally’s debilitating pain, the only downfall to an otherwise stellar performance.

Larkin’s portrayal strives for a similar polish that doesn’t gel in this cynical space—a Barbie Bowles, prim and presentational. When we finally reach the title song (which, newsflash, is far sadder than most popular covers would have you believe) her psychotic breakdown feels as painless as a temper tantrum. Her scene partner, Benjamin Eakeley, as American writer Clifford Bradshaw, is suitable but weakened by Larkin’s decisions.

Mary Gordon Murray and Scott Robertson are perfect as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, older lovers faced with the political consequences of interfaith marriage. Jon Peterson keeps the engine running as the club’s presiding and filthy Emcee. He’s excited and mischievous, like an adolescent boy just discovering life’s changes. Peterson brings focus to the Emcee’s wandering eye.

The Emcee’s rush, his urgency, is vital. This “Cabaret” is required viewing. It suggests that self-preservation is a natural way to cope, but an insufficient way to survive. It teaches us that knowledge is not optional, and action cannot be passive. It reminds us that these are the good old days, that history is staring us in the face.

It’s time to stare back. Ramadan begins on May 26.

THEATER REVIEW

★ ★ ★ ½ (out of 4)

“Cabaret”

Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

When: Runs through April 30 with performances at 7:30 p.m.April 26, 27; 8 p.m. April 28; 2 and 9 p.m. April 29; and 2 and 7 p.m. April 30.

Tickets: $27 to $72

Info: sheas.org,  800-745-3000

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