Under the direction of Deb DeGrosse, the Tower Theatre transforms into Berlin at the end of the Golden Age of the Weimer Republic. The threat of the Nazi's burgeoning - and imminent - rise to power is either ignored, or somehow forgiven, by all except the Emcee of the Kit Kat Club.
Equal parts hedonistic and angelic, the Emcee, a fleshy apparition, a one-man Greek chorus played with pitch-perfect aplomb by Rick Johnson, becomes the conscious of Cabaret. Johnson rivals the Tony-award winning interpretation of the Emcee by Broadway veteran Allan Cumming as he leads us through worlds both real and imagined until his prescience blurs the lines between. It's not so much that he passes judgment during his more ghost-like stage moments, more that he becomes an all-knowing figure mired in the futility of naïve optimists. From Johnson's first appearance on stage as he sings his way through a glorious rendition of "Wilkommen" the audience is transfixed. I assumed this caliber of talent could only be seen in New York or LA, but Johnson steals the show.
Sally Bowles, played with unflinching optimism by 20-year-old Corinne Sharlet, grabs the audience with her first raucous performance of "Don't Tell Mama" and keeps us rooting for her, in spite of her impending decline. She is the unabashed star, and favorite lady-of-the-evening to club owner Max, until the American writer Cliff Bradshaw comes to town. Joe Wegner plays Bradshaw with a heroic, Old-Hollywood earnestness. But this is not Hollywood. His pleas for everyone to "wake-up" to Adolf Hitler's sinister rise to power sadly go unanswered, even by his lover, Sally. The other love story in Cabaret, played with sweetness and heart by Helen Watts as Fraulein Schneider and Bob Vogel as Herr Schultz, illustrates with deep and personalized sadness the horrors of the Nazis' plan.
Other highlights include Mary Kilpatrick, co-founder of BEAT, as a scene-stealing Kit Kat girl and Kevin Houser as Ernst Ludwig, a man with unwavering loyalty to the Nazi party. Houser's accent is believable and the swastika on his arm serves as an ominous foil to the clown-like make-up worn with a near vulgarity by the Emcee.
Fraulein Kost, played by Allyson Milner, a soldier-loving prostitute who "outs" Herr Schultz as a Jew, delivers an unforgettable rendition of Tomorrow Never Knows and we almost understand the characters' misguided notion that "gather[ing] together to greet the storm" will make the political thunderclouds on the horizon give way to sunshine.
To bring 1929 Germany to life, Cat Call Productions has enlisted the talents of choreographer Michelle Mejaski (owner of theGotta Dance! studio), musical director Torrey Newhart and the costume design of Cat Call owner and executive producer Tifany LeGuyonne.
This is an adults-only show, proven by the eye covering of two young ladies sitting in front of me, as the Emcee and his two lovers, one female, one somewhat dubious male, stimulate sex acts behind a backlit movie screen to the song "Two Ladies." This is envelope-pushing at its finest - thought-provoking, disturbing and sometimes uncomfortable, which are the brash indicators of a modern live theatre experience.
The full seats on opening night prove that there is a High Desert audience waiting to experience the sex and sass, the extreme politics and the extended metaphor of a nation's obliviousness to the Nazi takeover.
Remaining shows: Thursday-Saturday, 8pm. Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St. $25. Tickets at towertheatre.org. Recommended for adults only.