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Culbreth's 'Cabaret' fever needs no cure

Welcome to Berlin, where everyone is beautiful. Sit back and enjoy.

The picture, of course, is more complicated than this in the Drama Department's Culbreth Theatre production of the Broadway musical "Cabaret." Director Jack Donahue leads a talented cast in this modern musical with a political bite, set in the nightscapes of pre-World War II Germany.

"Cabaret" strikes a difficult balance between acting and singing. Musicals frequently leave one or the other area thin, but this one has the whole package. The result is a product both entertaining and disturbing, uplifting and tragic. I'd argue that this is the best Culbreth production in the past four seasons, and almost certainly the best musical. Don't miss it.

Kathryn Budig carries the show with a convincing and moving performance as Sally Bowles, a British performer, who headlines the show at the Kit Kat Klub, Berlin's hottest nightspot. Sally's love affair with American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (a talented Adam Brock), gives the play its emotional authenticity and depth.

Cliff comes to Berlin in search of something, or someone, to write about. He finds both, and much more, in Sally at the Kit Kat Klub. A second relationship between the older couple of boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider (Laura Bonner) and Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Doug Schneider) runs parallel.

These two love stories, projected together against the political backdrop of Nazism's emergence, throw the human consequences of such politics into harsh emotional relief.

In "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," the company gives a disturbingly rousing portrayal of music as Nazi propaganda and Aryan patriotic fervor. This musical number shows us the abstract vision of the German Fatherland that the rest of the play complicates.

Against this, "Cabaret" sets Sally's suggestion that the Kit Kat Klub (yes, it's the KKK) is "the most unpolitical place in Berlin." The script, set and music fuse the worlds of civilian Berlin and the nightclub to show the permeating reach of any totalizing ideology.

Ian Unterman, as the cabaret's Emcee, bridges the gap between the worlds of song and politics. He pulls off this demanding role well, orchestrating the Kit Kat Girls and Kit Kat Boys while also weaving himself into the personal and political threads of the individual story lines.

This fusion places us squarely in the conflicts of Berlin's attractive and repulsive elements. The creative costumes by Kimberly G. Morris and Kathryn Rohe and lighting by Michael Tallon Ciok, along with the music, help transport us there. Even more, the spare and angular set design by Tom Bloom provides a domain for the emotional rawness and harshness on which the play capitalizes.

The performance is not flawless. Some fight choreography late in the show is hardly convincing, but Donahue seems to know this. He keeps it short and attempts to cover it up with strobe lighting. Also, Donahue has chosen to split the performance into a 100 minute first act and a 40 minute second act, which puts a strange twist on the traditional pattern of building to climax followed by resolution. And the production sort of smothers the seven-piece live band by burying them in a covered orchestra pit and piping in the sound through speakers. This isolates the music in ways that might bother those familiar with the Broadway version of the musical, in which the members of the orchestra are also members of the cast.

But on the whole, the production covers its ground well. The music is crisp and enjoyable, entertaining in itself but also effective in contributing to a larger project. "Cabaret" uses the musical genre both as a medium for examining the ways politics can touch every individual life, even in the depths of the nightclub scene, and as a trope of resistance. Filtering the tragedy through song is itself a gesture of remembrance and hope.

"Cabaret" runs Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Culbreth Theatre.