Cabaret, Triumphant

Winding Road's rendition of a dark musical of 1930s Germany is superb

Life is not a cabaret and Sally Bowles knows it. But here she is in the spotlight, strangely and perfectly still, flat-out begging us to leave our troubles at the door and come inside. The party's over, sure, but we can get it started again, right?

It's a desperate invitation, delivered with heart-stopping urgency by Lucille Petty, who plays Sally to within an inch of her life in Winding Road Theater Ensemble's Cabaret.

You'll likely love this sizzling Cabaret long before Petty sends a few chills up your spine with the title song.

It's not her singing that stops the show, though. It's the cumulative weight of her performance and our memory of the pain that preceded this moment. Petty can act and sing at the same time, a skill that's useful even in a live television production of The Sound of Music—Carrie Underwood got it half right the other night—but essential in Cabaret.

Watch Petty's eyes and the tension in her body, which combine to tell you everything you need to know about this wounded young entertainer in Weimar Germany. This is a character we think we know, thanks to Liza Minnelli's Oscar-winning turn in the 1972 movie. There's no escaping Minnelli's indelible performance, which hangs over any production the same way that Marlon Brando is tied to every Stanley Kowalski.

So how do you solve a problem like Minnelli? I have no earthly idea, but I know that Petty makes the memory of Judy Garland's daughter go poof from the get-go.

If you've got a credible Sally, you've got a shot at an incredible Cabaret. But the miracle of this mounting is the ensemble. Under the direction of Christopher Johnson and Evan Werner, the cast is exceptional from top to bottom.

The actors never hit a false note, which is not to say there aren't some ugly notes. A Cabaret without rough edges would be as wrong as indoor rain.

The John Kander and Fred Ebb musical takes place in Berlin in the early 1930s. It's a time of excess and decadence and rampant sexuality. The musical achieves emotional gravitas because we know that all this carnal sin is nothing compared to the sin that's on the way. Our knowledge that tomorrow belongs to the Nazis ratchets up the sexual intensity and puts a monumental chill in the air.

Johnson's body of work on local stages made him the inevitable choice to play the Emcee, a role that's too often bogged down by its metaphorical weight. But Johnson, an imposing figure in white face with a bald head and bulging biceps, makes the omnisexual master of ceremonies a specific person who is comfortable in his own skin. It's a playful performance that dispenses with most of the creepy mannerisms usually associated with the character. We know we're in good hands with this guy.

The casting rightly plays with our notions of race and gender. Some of the decisions feel uncanny, like casting Nick Trice as the bisexual American writer who comes to Berlin, rocking a trench coat, and finds more inspiration than he can handle.

Trice, an African-American actor with charisma to spare, is perfect as Clifford Bradshaw, a character who often comes off as a passive bore. Clifford sees all so he can write it all. He is a camera and thanks to Trice, me Leica (apologies to Walter Kerr).

And what's not to like about China Young as Fraulein Kost, not to mention Susan Arnold and David A. Johnston as the older couple whose tender love for each other can't overcome the gathering storm? Likewise, it's hard to disagree with the decision to cast Dani Dryer as Ernst Ludwig, the Nazi in their midst. Dryer, a woman who has prior experience playing a man, conveys the irrational hatred that lurks in Ludwig's heart.

The actors who play the Kit Kat Club dancers and other characters make their own vivid impression. They are Lauren Adkisson, Celina Flores, Tashiana Holt, Ryan Kinseth, Casi Omick, Armen Sarrafian and Stephanie Tournquist.

Cabaret makes the most of downtown's intimate Cabaret Theatre. With an orchestra that's as good as it is small, under the direction of Harriet Siskin, and with splendid original choreography by Mickey Nugent, the show is wonderfully suited to the venue, which was filled to capacity on opening night.

It would be a crime to oversell this Cabaret. But you try curbing your enthusiasm when confronted with what Winding Road has done. Besides, running the risk of raising expectations to unnatural levels is a misdemeanor compared to the more serious crime for theater lovers: missing what will be the hottest ticket this side of the top-ranked UA men's basketball team.

So put down your Twitter, Facebook and phone, old chums, because there's something special happening right now in the real world.

Right this way, your table's waiting.