Hellooooo, Tyler Michaels! Or rather, “Wilkommen,” young man. You have shimmied your way into the gold club of Twin Cities musical theater performers.
Michaels — with director Peter Rothstein goading him into a series of outrageous physical gags — minces and slinks, simmers and glares as the Master of Ceremonies of a little club called the Kit Kat. You know the place as that seedy, debauched hangout in Weimar Germany — the place where Christopher Isherwood found grist for stories that would be turned into “Cabaret.”
Rothstein’s production “Cabaret” opened Saturday night at the Pantages Theatre with Michaels flying in out of nowhere and landing in the lap of a patron. Not a bad trick if your intent is to knock people off their assumptions about what’s fair game in theater. The Emcee gets into the business of a few more audience members throughout the evening, trying to incorporate all of us into the notion that we are in the Kit Kat, in Berlin on the cusp of Hitler’s ascension, a part of the world stage.
“Cabaret,” which has evolved through several iterations since opening in 1966, remains vexed by its dual nature — balancing a wild, Brechtian device full of camp with a fairly old-fashioned book musical. This tension still results in spiky glitter scenes and saggy patches of dialogue.
Within the club, the action shakes with naughty excitement. There are songs, dance, fun, gaiety. Michael Matthew Ferrell’s choreography reflects the unrefined energy and the sweaty lust for life that defined the early 1930s in one of the world’s most delirious places. Denise Prosek drives an orchestra that “is beautiful.” Rich Hamson’s exquisite costumes spare little flesh from exposure as the dancers leap around Kate Sutton-Johnson’s dark glass-paneled set.
Isherwood wrote of a British singer named Sally Bowles, a mediocre but somehow magnetic performer who hooked his heart a little. Kira Lace Hawkins’ Sally devours her moment in the spotlight with a voice that is full of steel and emotional power. Her eyes and face radiate a confidence, her manner a sense of self-obsession. Hawkins’ Sally has a phoniness, a facade that is essential to understanding her vulnerability. As she walks off stage at one point near the play’s end, her shoulders slump with the knowledge that the game is over.
The other part of “Cabaret” is a plotted story, and this is where productions may wobble. Rothstein took no chances when he cast Sally Wingert as Fraulein Schneider, the landlady who falls in love with a Jewish fruit vendor (futzy James Detmar). The relationship of these two takes time to spool out. Here, Wingert and Detmar make the time worthwhile, in musical numbers that express their tender, late-life romance.
The book scenes also benefit from the presence of Sean Dooley, who plays wannabe novelist Cliff Bradshaw — Isherwood’s presence in the musical. Cliff is a complex, unsettled personality caught inside the body of a fairly timid American rich boy. Dooley’s Cliff stumbles into the Berlin milieu and falls in love with Sally. He sobers up just in time, for the Emcee’s jocund world has crumbled.
Michaels’ crazy little man is left alone, the last one left at the party before Germany turns out the lights.