William Peace Theatre
Through Feb. 25

I’ve been waiting quite a while for a production of Cabaret like the one currently at William Peace Universityabout 20 years.

I have nothing against director Sam Mendesor actor Alan Cummingboth of whom placed an indelible stamp on the famous London revival of this Kander and Ebb musical in 1993. I just wish that most of our region’s directors and designers hadn’t subsequently decided to take the next two decades off, creatively speaking, when it came to imagining this work as anything else. Without an original vision for this musical, we’ve mostly witnessed a series of theatrical photocopies made at various settings for image resolution and quality.

Fortunately, directors Kenny Gannon and Jason Dula have fully grasped that the Kit Kat Klub, that scuzzy Weimar-era after-hours playpen, was not just a psychosexual Ben & Jerry’s with a different color scheme. From the opening notes of “Willkommen,” it’s evident that this predatory speakeasy observes the fundamental, Darwinian rule of the big fish tank: Where bottom feeders gather, sharks swim nearby.

Under Gannon and Dula’s direction, and ably abetted by Nicola Bullock’s choreography, this show rarely lets us forget that we in the audience are the chum in this shark tank. The dead eyes of Dani Gehle’s Rosie, Hannah Murphy’s bored but exacting appraisal as Frenchie and the far more carnivorous gaze of Kelsey Walston’s Fritzie and Sawyer Stone as Lulu: All serve notice that this carnal crew isn’t interested in making friends, coy flirtation or even foreplay. Instead this is the libidinous equivalent of an unfriendly corporate takeoverFrench kissing among piranhas. Call it an interpersonal mugging, possibly with benefits, but definitely with a price.

As the leader of this licentious band of pirates, Derrick Ivey’s Emcee is insidious and captivating, with a manner and visage at times reminiscent of The Threepenny Opera‘s antihero, Captain Macheath. As his partner in crime, song-and-dance gal Sally Bowles, Sidney Edwards is directed to bare her fangs from the beginning of her first number, “Don’t Tell Mama.” But as things develop, the desperation of a one-trick pony who knows that her one trick’s not that good increasingly pours off her exposed skin. That’s what propels Bowles toward Pennsylvania transplant Clifford Bradshaw (Hampton Rowe), who’s come to Berlin in search of his novel. It’s the first inkling that she just might need an exit strategy.

But when she strays too far from the venomous limelight, Ivey’s trickster figure finds her coat, ushers her back, alone, to center stage and tenderly croons that anesthetic torch song, “I Don’t Care Much.”

In fairness, I have to note the imperfections that accompanied a mostly undergraduate cast on stage. In a show whose musical numbers and choreography are so aerobic, breath control and pitch were problematic at times, even among singers in the principal roles last Friday night. Melissa Compton was decades too young for the landlord, Fraulein Schneiderbut she clearly knew how to sell a song.

Still, of all the recent Cabarets, this one has most carefully thought through the evidence and implications of Joe Masteroff’s script for itself. It’s the one that convinced me its inhabitants knew their world firsthand, and not from some version someone saw. By itself, that would get me in the door to catch this show.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Psychodrama.”