Erin Palm as Sally Bowles and the Kit Kat Klub Boys in the Studio 58 production of Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper.
Erin Palm as Sally Bowles and the Kit Kat Klub Boys in the Studio 58 production of Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper.

Given the political climate in the world right now, it isn’t surprising Cabaret gets its third treatment in as many years on a Vancouver stage.

The latest to tackle the Kander and Ebb musical, chronicling the rise of the Nazis in 1930’s Germany, is Studio 58, the professional theatre training school at Langara College.

It is a raw and powerful production, and a promising directorial debut for school alumnus Josh Epstein as it tells its story of the denizens of Berlin’s Kit Klub Klub as Cliff Bradshaw, a young American novelist, arrives in the city looking for inspiration.

While still questioning his sexuality, Bradshaw quickly falls for the Kit Kat Klub’s chanteuse Sally Bowles, embracing a new found sexual liberation of Berlin at the time. As the Nazis begin their rise, the two find themselves at odds over what is about to come and the freedoms of the past. In the meantime, a subplot follows the doomed love affair between Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz and his landlady Fraülein Schneider.

Like the two other recent productions, this Studio 58 production is also based on the 1998 Broadway revival. With a youthful (and sexy) edge it takes full advantage of the Weimar culture, filled with its decadent cabarets and nightclub, just before it began being dismantled by the burgeoning Nazi regime.

It is a far cry from Bob Fosse’s 1972 film adaptation starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, with this production going full-on with skin aplenty, simulated sex, lacy undergarments for both the men and women, leather, and countless garters among the mostly androgynous costumes of choice from designer Amy McDougall.

Director Epstein takes full advantage of both the space in set designer Drew Facey’s deceptively simple but effective backdrop and in the audience, all wonderfully lit by Itai Erdal.

Breaking the fourth wall even before the show starts, the audience is invited to become as much a part of the action inside the KKK (!). Often surrounded by this large cast, we are drawn into their world as they sing, dance and interact with us at every opportunity.

Orchestrating the proceedings is The Emcee. While traditionally a male role, here Epstein turns things on its head by casting Paige Fraser as the de facto master of ceremony and political commentator.

An inspired choice, it not only effectively distances the role from Joel Grey’s iconic portrayal in the film, but gives Fraser opportunity to show off her ample skills. Whether perched high above the stage spinning a mirror ball, or adding a strange gravitas to the show’s darker moments, Fraser is this show’s skipping heartbeat. And even while, by design or circumstance, she floats in-and-out of her strange accent, it all works.

Paige Fraser as The Emcee and the Kit Kat Klub Girls in the Studio 58 production of Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper.
Paige Fraser as The Emcee and the Kit Kat Klub Girls in the Studio 58 production of Cabaret. Photo by David Cooper.

As Sally Bowles, Erin Palm does nice work in the more dramatic parts but she seemed to be struggling vocally at times. A huge role, perhaps the preceding two weeks of near nightly shows and a couple of matinees have had an impact.

As Bradshaw, Dylan Floyde loses some of the impact of his character with a singular volume. And even while it might be a caricature of the typical loud American, it makes it difficult to reconcile both the clarity and confusion he endures to what is happening in Germany at the time.

Always difficult to do, and often a thankless task in a student production, playing to a certain age is never easy. Both Julia Munčs and Moe Golkar struggle as they try to play the older lovers, Schneider and Schultz. It is particularly difficult to take their portrayals seriously when these obvious twenty-somethings have to sing about their advancing years.

With an ensemble of some fourteen actors, Epstein uses them all to full advantage, filling the stage and beyond in some of the larger numbers. Combined with Shelley Stewart Hunt’s often breathtaking and quirky choreography, there is a real pleasure in watching them as both a group and their individual characterizations.

Under the direction of Christopher King, the band does nice work with Kander’s music. But when you are largely visible through the entire show it is important to remember you effectively become an extension of the cast. Here, unfortunately, some of them simply looked bored.

Perhaps it is in having seen this particular musical three times in as many years, and even with so much to love about this production, the overall impact did wane at times. That is, of course, until its final moments where you will be hard-pressed to find an audience sitting anywhere else in stunned silence as the lights fade to black.

Cabaret with a book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood. Directed by Josh Epstein. Musical direction by Christopher King. A Studio 58 production at Langara College’s Studio 58 (100 W 49th Ave, Vancouver) until February 24. Tickets are available online at Tickets Tonight.