In Porchlight Music Theatre’s intimate production of the beloved Kander and Ebb musical “Cabaret,” the best Chicago show so far in 2023, there will be little you have seen before.
This is notable because so many things have been tried with this particular title. A sparkling Sally Bowles has to compete with the luminous memory of Liza Minnelli in the movie. A traumatized Sally always recalls the stunning performance by the late Natasha Richardson in Sam Mendes’ 1998 Broadway revival, a nihilistic, terrifying piece of acting that haunts me still.
That profoundly conceptual production lasted for some six years, toured all over and also introduced one Alan Cumming, whose brilliantly homoerotic take on the Emcee cast a broad Scottish shadow on that role for decades to come. Everyone knew Joel Grey’s cool, cynical take, but Cumming seduced his audiences and poured them a drink as they drowned in their own complicity. Many are the subsequent “Cabarets” that borrowed something from that revival. Almost every time.
But that’s really not true of director Michael Weber’s notably fresh and compelling new production, which is the work of highly experienced artists who have worked together often. You don’t easily see where Weber’s direction ends and Brenda Didier’s tightly wound choreography begins, and Linda Madonia’s musical direction holds it all together. All three of them know what the Ruth Page Center can and cannot easily do. They find a lot of physical depth here in their space, but Porchlight needs a bigger theater and I believe there is one open on Lincoln Avenue, but that’s a story for another day.
Right now, this Chicago-based trio is featuring a lead performance from Erica Stephan that deserves to introduce her to a much broader swatch of Chicago theatergoers than those of us who know and admire her already. She’s simply a knockout Sally Bowles: vulnerable, empathetic, restless, relentless and pitch-perfect to boot. It’s also an admirably Chicago-style piece of work, in that Stephan keeps a close eye on the ensemble in which she belongs. Sally is a denizen of the Kit Kat Club, the place that taught her what to do to survive. This show doesn’t work if she is on a different planet from everyone else.
As the Emcee, Josh Walker, an actor whose musical direction in Chicago I remember admiring more than a decade ago, finds a variety of singular colors in the part. At 4 feet, 6 inches, Walker has crashed through plenty of theatrical barriers in his career and the best aspect of this particular performance is how shrewdly Walker uses the opportunity of “Cabaret” to do something different every time: his tour de force here is the gorgeous ballad “I Don’t Care Much,” a reminder of how often Fred Ebb and John Kander asked performers to sing the precise opposite of what their self-deluded characters actually were feeling.
I’d argue that Gilbert Domally, who has one of the best voices in the city, takes the cipher-like quality of Clifford Bradshaw (the character that book writer Joe Masteroff based on Christopher Isherwood himself), a bit too far. There are moments in this show that demand greater surprise and engagement, if only so the dramatic mechanism of the show can function as intended. That needs attention.
In the character roles, you get to enjoy the skills and hearts of Mark David Kaplan and Mary Robin Roth, playing the couple that these great Broadway artists used to show how the Nazis destroyed potential personal happiness, while also warning against burying your head in the sand. And there’s a powerful, edgy turn from Neala Barron as Fraulein Kost. Suitably intimidating and suitably inevitable.
Add in a six-piece orchestra and a power-packed ensemble and you have a fine and affordably priced Chicago “Cabaret,” a bright star in what has been a much reduced January when it comes to the number of full-blown shows in our city; the arts remain in recovery.
But it’s always a “Cabaret” for Sally. Stephan makes it clear why.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Cabaret” (3.5 stars)
When: Through Feb. 12
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $45-69 at 773-777-9884 or Porchlightmusictheatre.org