A few sharp intakes of breath could be heard at Cahn Auditorium on Sunday afternoon when Rudy Hogenmiller, the former Broadway hoofer who morphed into the artistic director of the Light Opera Works of Evanston, made his first entrance as theater's most famous Emcee. In truly formidable dancing shape at 58, Hogenmiller had applied a little mascara, a hefty swath of rouge and a glistening sheen to his lean torso and close-cropped pate. Most of his on-stage appearances to date on behalf of Light Opera Works have been on the order of "Subscribe Now!," a duty with which he has never seemed entirely comfortable. This summer, the other side of Hogenmiller makes for quite the master of John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Cabaret."
The eye-popping Hogenmiller, whose legitimate dancing chops allow him to go places most Emcees cannot, or dare not, is joined atop Stacey Flaster's very enjoyable, potent and ambitious production by Jenny Lamb as Sally Bowles. Sallys tend to vary between young, sensual and frivolous and rapidly running-out-of-viable-choices; Lamb, an actress known for her work far Off-Loop, paints her as very much in the latter category, which always is the more interesting of the two. This was bold casting by Flaster and it paid off. Lamb's desperate, flailing, too-old-for-this-nonsense Sally is genuinely poignant and complicated. Indeed, Lamb is one of those singer-actresses the big musical houses have inexplicably tended to overlook for several years. Perhaps she has been seen as too edgy. Whatever. She can act. This is a big move uptown for Lamb and, when it counts in the title number, she owns the performance in every inch of her body.
Most productions of this brilliant musical these days owe something to the 1998 Broadway revival starring Alan Cumming and the late, great Natasha Richardson — a production that still haunts my bones — and this one has a similar note of gritty realism. There are some givens at Light Opera Works: a small number of union contracts, an unexciting college auditorium that tends to flatten out bold conceptual choices, limited dollars for Angela Weber Miller's scenic budget and a company that only gets a limited amount of time in its borrowed space. There is nothing edgy about Cahn Auditorium. So when you view what Flaster has achieved here in that context, this really is a remarkably piece of work, and a production that in no way copies from the palate of that revival; it makes its own bold choices.
Hogenmiller is a chillier Emcee than most, and thus considerably more intimidating. I suppose one loses an element of surprise in a number like "If You Could See Her," but Hogenmiller feels incredibly logical as a creature of this particular time and place. The Nazis did not come out of nowhere, contrary to the claims of some. Cumming's Emcee ended up in a concentration camp, the Sam Mendes revival famously suggested. Hogenmiller portrays someone more likely to end up as a guard, which makes perfect sense.
Playing opposite Jim Heatherly's gentle Herr Schultz, Barbara Clear's killer Fraulein Schneider skips much of the usual sentiment and presents a myopic, mercurial woman who could never even think about marrying a Jew, once the situation is explained to her. Indeed the only significant weakness of the production involves the always tricky relationship between Cliff (David Schlumpf) and Sally. Schlumpf is a handsome actor with a fine voice, but his character just seems to run out of steam in the second act, acquiescing a little too quickly to all of that unfinished business with the vacillating Sally. In the best productions of this musical, Berlin collapses into hell in tandem with the destruction of Sally and Cliff's ill-fated relationship, and both are high-stakes affairs throughout. Schlumpf gives up a bit too easily.
As is typical with this company, a 24-piece orchestra occupies the pit. Well, most of them do: Flaster pulled out a few players to form an on-stage band. These are not the Kit Kat Klub girls (which is a typical way to go now) but a mature all-woman company of piano, sax, trombone and drums. They don't look entirely comfortable, but Flaster makes that add to the funky ambience. All in all, this is quite the risk-taking enterprise by Light Opera Works standards, although the show sounds entirely legit when it needs to go in that direction, especially during "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," the only Nazi-style chorus ever written to be hummed, guiltily, on the way out the door.
This was Kander and Ebb's masterful way of underlining the point, articulated by Frau Schneider, that hate speech sometimes starts with the people whom you always thought were your friends; it takes a lot of doing to stand in their way, even at the cabaret.
When: Through Aug. 25
Where: Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St.
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Tickets: $32-$92 at 847-920-5360 or light-opera-works.org