Musicals typically work from a proven formula: believable love story plus catchy songs equals success. But there is the indispensable x-factor of spectacle that ties the entire venture together. Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb's "Cabaret" is a prime example. And Pittsford Musicals' presentation of the musical is thoroughly engaging, ultimately capitalizing on its greatest strengths, and sustaining interest that could have easily waned with weaker performances.
Set in pre-World War II Berlin on the cusp of Nazi ascendancy, the storyline centers around the struggling American novelist Cliff Bradshaw and English cabaret performer Sally Bowles, whose romance blooms against the backdrop of the glittering Kit Kat Klub. Unfortunately, the plot -- focused on this one-dimensional, illusory relationship without staying power -- is inherently flimsy. It doesn't help that Scott Shutts's portrayal of Cliff is underwhelming. Though Shutts is a pleasant singer, his performance lacks the charisma befitting the dashing, intriguing American for whom the freewheeling Sally falls.
Fortunately, this production by Pittsford Musicals has many saving graces. The music is indefatigably charming, and the ensemble numbers in particular give shape to the story while painting an enticing picture of the cabaret's shine-covers-grime allure. There is the delightfully bawdy "Mein Herr," with its whiff of BDSM. Later, "Two Ladies," that ribald ode to threesomes, and the exuberantly cynical "Money" thoroughly entertain, lightening the mood as the growing threat of anti-Semitism and relationship discord become more unsettling.
Even with these rollicking songs, "Cabaret" would fall flat without a showstopping Emcee. As the cabaret's host, Dan Howell is every bit the dynamic provocateur, peppering in a healthy dose of angst amid the playfulness. And beneath all the risqué bravado, Howell has a melodious singing voice that comes to the fore in Act II numbers like "If You Could See Her" and "I Don't Care Much."
Of course, "Cabaret" is also a vehicle for its leading lady. As Sally, Brynn Kathryn Tyszka is piquant and magnetic. Her resplendent panache dominates "Mein Herr," and with a striking combination of vivacity and desperation, Tyszka delivers the title song as if singing for her very life. Her voice is bright and cutting, but balanced with a pathos that underscores the dark gravity of the drama.
The production follows in the footsteps of the 1993 London and 1998 Broadway revivals; even in scenes at the boardinghouse where Cliff is staying, the cabaret performers' virtual omnipresence -- though meant to be unsettling -- simply seems out of place here, as they look out on the proceedings from the stairs and balcony on the stage with expressionless stares.
Despite its trappings of a conventional musical, "Cabaret" is serious theater, and this economical, yet effective, production drives this fact home. The deleterious effects of fascism on individuals and life as a whole are displayed unblinkingly, and the spirited music and energetic dancing belie the tragedy of the Holocaust to come.