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Theater Review: “Cabaret” reimagined at Pennsylvania Playhouse

Stories of acceptance become hard to digest with modern sensibility. It is like taking a sip of edible poison, a delicacy turned sour.

Celebrating otherness, especially in the face of sociopolitical turmoil, is quickly met with distaste after relishing in the briefest moment of supposed escapism.

At its core, “Cabaret,” a 1966 classic, is about this very dichotomy: celebrating authentic self and its toxic relationship with continued oppression.

“Cabaret” continues through June 16, Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem. The opening night May 31 performance was seen for this review.

Pennsylvania Playhouse production Director Kathy Pacheco, backed by a sultry collective of body-positive cast members, seemed to understand the source material better than its original prescription.

They knew, with Emcee leading as this ever-relevant omniscient narrator, that the story does not start and end at the Kit Kat Club in pre-World War II Germany.

It starts with the very government we exist within today: a contemporary landscape that prides itself on silencing glam for a false sense of conservative security. A musical about acceptance from 1966 should not read as a cautionary tale in the year 2024, but yet here we are.

To tell the story is none other than a group of faultless cornerstones of inspiration that extend beyond the casual local actor.

When an actor can perform pain, in a way that builds instant empathy, it is a gift. Cody Jackson, existing almost as the musical’s author, brings this to life with their performance as Emcee. If joy was dipped in melancholy, though challenged with relentless optimism to “live and let live,” it would result in Jackson’s take.

Audiences first meet Jackson in the fantastical opening of “Willkommen,” a sharp parallel to the show’s end. With his immediate vocal, unmatched in consistent delivery, Jackson lent himself a chance to explore the character to its fullest boundary. Quite often, the entire cast accomplished this same feat of unashamed discovery.

That is what makes this production work so beautifully: Everyone is leading with a sense of true urgency.

Sally Bowles, particularly found in Talia Sites’s adoption of the titular protagonist, lives as a different kind of reminder of what Emcee brings as he lingers on the outside. Both lead with a similar kind of flare, a hyper-fixated love for the book of “Cabaret.”

Unmistakable strength radiates from Sites whenever engaging with her character. Sally Bowles is the type of character you just want to live with, like Clifford Bradshaw, because her disengagement with the world invites a hypnotism.

Sometimes, if Sally were a real person, it is easier to sink in disillusionment than it is to live in reality. Sites’s attack on this disheveled, and somewhat chaotic archetype, is something that needs to be seen. Mostly, heard. “Maybe This Time,” one of the musical’s more recognized titles, is sung with a mightiness that mirrors Broadway talent.

Jackson and Sites, shared with the overall exceptional ensemble of characters, painted such evocative portraits with their voice alone.

Contributing to, with distinction, the larger cast was made up of Dylan D. Miller as Clifford Bradshaw, Trish Kane Steele as Fraulein Schneider, Robert Torres as Herr Schultz, Moriah Faith as Fraulein Kost and Shaun Hayes as Ernst Ludwig.

Each Pennsylvania Playhouse stage veteran brought their respective roles discerning believability. The chemistry shared in scenes was natural. When introduced to the plot surrounding the rise of Nazism in favor of limiting freedom of self, each actor played their part with appropriate comprehension.

“Married,” a harmonious duet between Steele and Torres, was a pivotal moment for the musical and a standout number. Most numbers were elevated by Kit Kat Club players often replaced by rehearsal tracks: a live orchestra driven by Liam P. Mulligan.

Emcee did remind us that, in fact, the five-piece band is a sight for our eyes. They deserve every bit of recognition, as their playing is just as sexy as the club itself.

In the end, this reskin of “Cabaret,” achieved its seeming goal. That is to remind people that acceptance is not a theme of today, but rather, a theme of today, yesterday and tomorrow.

Adversity is meant to be overcome. If it weren’t, places like the Kit Kat Club where troubles are left behind, would never have a reason to exist.

“Cabaret,” 7:30 p.m. June 7, 8, 14, 15; 6 p.m. June 9, 16, Pennsylvania Playhouse, 390 Illicks Mill Road, Bethlehem. Tickets: 610-865-6665, http://www.paplayhouse.org

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY JEFF STEWART From left: Robert Torres (Herr Schultz), Cody Jackson (Emcee) and Trish Kane Steele (Fräulein Schneider), “Cabaret,” The Pennsylvania Playhouse.