By David A. Rosenberg
Mindful of its small space, Westport’s Music Theater of Connecticut has whittled the evocative, prize-winning 1966 smash musical “Cabaret” down to eight actors. Lost is texture; gained is intimacy.
Thrust into the middle of the action, we empathize even more with the characters and are as horrified by the circumstances in which they eke out their sordid stories. For this is Germany in 1929 and 1930, at the start of the Third Reich whose presence lurks even in scenes of romance.
The story must be familiar. Sally Bowles, a second-rate nightclub singer, falls in love with and exploits Cliff Bradshaw, an aspiring American novelist. Their relationship, and that of landlady Frau Schneider’s with Herr Schultz, is mirrored symbolically by the sinister Kit Kat Klub Emcee and realistically by party member Ernst Ludwig.
In numbers like “Two Ladies” and “If You Could See Her,” the era’s dangerous undercurrents emerge. Schneider’s love affair with Schultz is sidelined because he’s a Jew, as is Sally’s with Cliff because she lives for irresponsible pleasure.
Although the film was frank about the homoerotic attraction between Cliff and Ernst, the stage musical would have none of that. Joe Masteroff’s libretto scrubs much of the eroticism from its sources, the book by Christopher Isherwood and the play by John van Druten. But the lyrics by Fred Ebb and the music by John Kander make up for that with a score that is both frightening and candid.
At MTC, director Kevin Connors, aided by Lainie Munro’s vivid choreography and Diane Vanderkroef’s period costumes, delivers an evening packed with atmosphere. Melissa Carlile-Price is a fierce Sally (her singing of the title song is dynamic). Ryan Reilly, with his movie-star looks, is utterly believable as the simmering Cliff. Veteran performer Dorothy Stanley as Schneider and Stuart Zagnit as Schultz make a wonderful team in the charming “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married.”
As the Emcee, Eric Scott Kincaid is forceful without being menacing, while Robert Daniel Sullivan imbues Ernst with superficial charm that barely hides his seething hatred. Marty Bongfeldt and Johnny Orenberg ably fill other roles. Substituting for the all-girl orchestra of the original are pianist David Wolfson and percussionist Chris Johnson. The girls aren’t missed.