Prior to last weekend’s opening performance of “Cabaret Verboten” at Arts Garage, artistic director Lou Tyrrell introduced the production by saying that “cabaret was the Daily Show of the time.” The time of the show’s material is Weimer-era Berlin, and Tyrrell couldn’t be more correct.
“Cabaret Verboten” is a collection of cabaret songs and sketches from more than 20 composers and writers from early ‘30s Germany; some, like Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, are familiar names, but most have been rescued from obscurity by the show’s conceiver, Jeremy Lawrence. When Lawrence premiered the show back in 1991, it received tepid reviews from the press. But it’s hard to imagine this much-improved revision failing to delight or provoke any fan of socially conscious musical theater, handled as it is by an exceptional quartet of local performers.
The set design is appropriately shabby, with thin, coffin-black curtains framing the small stage, where a three-piece band huddles in a corner. The objects that dangle on the curtains – garland, a baby doll, an inner tube, handcuffs – are innocent accoutrements with sinister undertones, and this decadent satire well employ them without inhibitions. Bedecked in Erin Amico’s gawdy costumes – which perfectly complement the goth-dark set design – Alexa Green, Wayne LeGette, Lourelene Snedeker and Pierre Tannous tear through 27 songs and sketches in just about an hour and a half. They speak in lewd double entendres (“No cock ever crowed loud enough for me,” croons Green in “A Little Attila,” oozing primal sexuality in a love ballad about despots), shoot stuffed animals, strip to their undergarments and, in true cabaret style, slink around the audience and interact with them (Already arranged in a cabaret formation, the Arts Garage is the most ideal location for a show like this).
But the show is far from just depravation and degradation. Nearly every piece is grounded in satire, with the show ebbing and flowing through a river of hot-button topics, from swindling politicians and greedy speculators to homosexuality and women’s rights to the legal system and pollution. The biting commentary transfers beautifully to present-day predicaments in the United States. To drive the comparisons home, Lawrence updated his source material, with up-to-the-minute references about Sarah Palin, Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Mitt Romney’s dog, Occupy Wall Street and the Stand Your Ground law, to name a few.
The humor ranges from the benign to the outrageous, with each of the actors having solid moments in the spotlight. Tannous’ “Take it Off, Petronella,” is a hilarious bit of cross-dressing culminating in a pair of retractable metal breasts, and Snekeder shines the brightest in “The Kleptomaniac,” an irrepressible paean to theft. There are a few duds in the mix, as expected with any hodgepodge revue like this; Snedeker’s “Shag Tobacco” is a ponderous snoozer and a poor choice as the penultimate song in the show. That said, this is a strong evening of theater that entertains while it provokes; more so than the Theater at Arts Garage’s first show, “Woody Sez,” “Cabaret Verboten” should put this company on the local map.