The Emcee has commandeered the "Cabaret," and thank goodness for that. He had always haunted the edges of this awkward musical about Weimar Germany, but a 1987 Broadway revival pushed this enigmatic waif out of the shadows. He stands -- still something of a blank mirror -- at the center of a culture teetering on disaster.

Bradley Greenwald consumes this delicious avatar of decadence in Frank Theatre's production of "Cabaret" at the Centennial Showboat in St. Paul. Less creepy than Joel Grey's original, Greenwald's Emcee is funny and charming -- insouciantly poking fun at himself and his club mates. Sexy, dangerous chorus girls and rouged, dandy chorus boys all respond to his prompt.

With Greenwald at the center, the Kit Kat Klub musical numbers dominate Wendy Knox's staging. Music director Michael Croswell and choreographer Bonnie Zimering Bottoms create the palette, and Knox squeezes more flesh and bone onto the small Showboat stage than seems possible. Kathy Kohl's costumes serve a dual purpose, festooning these oddballs and turning them into human scenery.

"Cabaret" suffers from a split personality. Greenwald's Kit Kat -- Germany's menacing soul -- oozes with manic debauchery. Less interesting is the romance between Cliff Bradshaw (Max Wojtanowicz) and Sally Bowles (Sara Richardson). Liza Minnelli redefined Sally, but recent productions have hewed to the role's original intent: a British singer of mediocre talent. Knox, a fan of Donmar Warehouse's 1990s staging, gets that portrayal from Richardson, though it feels like mimicry of Donmar's Jane Horrock -- without Horrock's introspective awareness. Wojtanowicz brings no chemistry to the party.

Oddly, though, this love story hardly matters. More satisfying -- and a reflection of German sensibility -- is the subplot involving Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Melissa Hart's Schneider is the broken heart of her country, trading romance with a Jewish fruit seller for the chance of gritty survival. Patrick Bailey's Schultz confidently predicts Nazism will pass because he understands Germans ("After all, what am I? A German").

Knox also draws fine performances from Barbara Meyer as the shabby prostitute, Fräulein Kost, and Peter Middlecamp -- in a moment of chilling clarity -- sings the iconic "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." Leif Jurgensen portrays an amiable Ernst, Cliff's helpful acquaintance who eventually reveals his toxic party affiliations.

Knox gets all this stuff to stand up on its hind legs, driving through the dreary scenes and getting us back to club life. And at the center of it is the Emcee, who in his final image will raise the hair on your neck.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299