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Review: A ‘Cabaret’ for this moment (Arden Theatre Company)

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The Kit Kat Club players in Arden Theatre Company's production of 'Cabaret.' John Jarbow, the emcee, is in the middle. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

The Kit Kat Club players in Arden Theatre Company's production of 'Cabaret.' John Jarbow, the emcee, is in the middle. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

I’m swept away by Arden Theatre Company’s new production of “Cabaret.” Strange, because I never much liked the musical before, ever since I first saw the original with Joel Grey as the Emcee of Berlin’s tawdry Kit Cat Club, a metaphor for everything decaying during the Nazis’ rise to power and slaughter in the ’30s. But at Arden’s opening of “Cabaret” on Wednesday, I witnessed a show so flawlessly reinterpreted and performed, it was something new.

And also, scary as hell.

This “Cabaret” couldn’t come at a more appropriate time, when some people use Tiki Torches in a way the manufacturer probably never predicted, when intolerance around the world has opened a toxic can of hate, when extremists make a showing in Germany’s elections. If you’ve ever doubted the ability of musicals to provide insights, the Arden’s “Cabaret” will lay that to rest.

The shame of it all: A musical just over a half-century old, which at its premiere looked back to a period of hate and false pride, is now able to look forward and underscore the same themes. This makes “Cabaret” anything but the museum piece I always perceived, dressed in a cheesy patina. The triumph of director Matthew Decker’s production — and triumphant is not too strong a word — is that it gives “Cabaret” the full measure of gravitas it deserves without dimming a spotlight on the show’s sleaze. The Kit Kat Club, famously commanded onstage by its sly, androgynous Emcee — maintains its raunch. The unsettling powers of change outside its doors, though, are so much more than hints.

The emcee in this show is played with cheek (and cheeks, you might say) by John Jarboe, an actor who’s grown significantly on small and larger stages in Philadelphia and is the artistic leader of the city’s inventive Bearded Ladies Cabaret. Jarboe delivers nothing less than a star turn in “Cabaret.” He flirts with the cast and the audience, takes on numerous characters in his ringleader role and fully commands any scene he’s in. He plays the emcee with a wink toward his own outrageousness.

Dressed in silky fluff, sequence or stockings and high heels (among Olivera Gajic’s superb costumes), Jarboe leads the singing, swooning and high kicks of Jenn Rose’s leggy choreography.

The role of the emcee has changed and expanded over the decades in major revivals of this show with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, a book by Joe Masteroff and inspiration from a novelette by Christopher Isherwood. The emcee was originally the oddball character who provided a framework for a plot in which a Kit Kat headliner named Sally Bowles (portrayed at the Arden by a swell-voiced Charissa Hogeland) hooks up with an American visitor (Daniel Fredrick), and a Christian landlady (an emphatic Mary Elizabeth Scallen) does the same with a Jewish fruit vendor (Kenny Morris). There’s also a longtime friend of the landlady (Christopher Patrick Mullen) and one of her tenants, a hooker, played by Suli Holum.

At the Arden, Decker’s direction makes the emcee both the focal point and, in a way, the narrator.

Jarboe’s character isn’t relegated to the Kit Kat Club — in the transitions between scenes, he often appears as a silent commentator, at one point spurring the rhythm of a brutal bashing by the flaunting movements of his arms and waist. In the show’s most stirring new twist, Jarboe comes out before the second act, fully in character, with a riff that brings the show into the present, then quickly proceeds to take it back to its past. The effect is bracing.

By the end, so is the entire production, framed by scenic designer David P. Gordon’s stage of garish show lights and unfolding under a second tier that houses an excellent orchestra under Alex Bechtel’s direction. Jorge Cousineau designed the show’s crisp sound and Maria Shaplin’s lighting sets varying moods. At the end, the lighting is fearsome — a harbinger of what’s coming for Germany at that time. And a sign for vigilance today.

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“Cabaret” runs through Oct. 22 at Arden Theatre Company, on Second Street north of Market Street. 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.

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