SNAPPING THE WHIP: Yes, Amanda Fucking Palmer does just fine, but Thomas Derrah and Remo Airaldi are the heart of this show.
Surprise! The American Repertory Theater Cabaret (at Oberon through October 29) is not some souped-up train carrying self-proclaimed Amanda Fucking Palmer through burgeoning Nazi Germany. Christopher Isherwood stand-in Cliff Bradshaw is still the man on that choo-choo, sightseeing the seedier side of the Weimar Republic, and the Dresden Dolls diva — a compellingly androgynous Emcee in boots, suspenders, and chest binding — is the conductor, moving things along with a pixie smile and a snap like a whip’s.
Taking its cue from the 1998 Sam Mendes–directed Broadway revival that ran for almost six years, most of them in the former Studio 54, Steven Bogart’s production is set in bottom-feeding Berlin’s Kit Kat Club, at Oberon a baroque amalgam of drapery, statuary, and junky glitz, its denizens at once ghoulish, ambisexual purveyors of decadence and moths painfully drawn to a horrifying future. Much has been made of the fact that Bogart was then-rebel-teen-queen Palmer’s first drama coach, and that his previous rialto was Lexington High School. But in this, his first professional outing, he delivers a harsh yet tender if overly slithery and aggressive production as unselfconsciously gender-bent as a pretzel, his former student its self-effacing center.
Except for a few explosive intrusions and an insulting ending, Bogart lets the 1966 musical run on its own petrol, powered as much by the Hairspray-spritzed turns of ART vets Thomas Derrah and Remo Airaldi as elderly paramours Fräulein Schneider, Cliff’s landlady, and her gentle Jewish fruit-vendor beau, Herr Schultz, as by Palmer’s beckoning, barking Emcee. Of course, given that the raggedy Kit Kat contingent, in their bras and codpieces and work boots and torn fishnets, intrude into every cranny of the production and playing space, it’s no surprise that Palmer and company sashay their way into Schultz’s wooing-by-fruit-plate as well, the Emcee conducting a double line of girls and boys crowned with Carmen Miranda headgear and bearing glimmering pineapples of varying hue and size.
Audaciously if not altogether wisely, the production does not shoot itself out of a gun with Kander & Ebb’s “Willkommen,” opting instead for a drinking song and game. Eventually, in an explosion of snare drum from the capable band (led by music directors Debra Barsha and Lance Horne) over the bar, Palmer’s muscular Emcee appears, a Nazi officer’s cap perched above slicked-back hair and trademark artificial eyebrows. Palmer had said she would play the Emcee as a woman in drag, and for the most part she does, cavorting with her “Two Ladies” who aren’t and playing male lover to a slops-snuffling pig in pasties who “doesn’t look Jewish at all.” But eventually her Emcee comes clean, appearing in a high corner in a sequined dress, a sax player at her side, to pour her characteristic rhythms, not to mention the numbness with which Germany welcomed the Nazis, into the depressive torcher “I Don’t Care Much.”
As the Hemingway wanna-be blindly dancing with Sally Bowles, Matt Wood supplies nice pipes and a plausible bland-American innocence. And as his golden-frizzed, skimpily flounced inamorata, Aly Trasher employs a kittenish speaking voice that contrasts with her almost robotic delivery of Sally’s Kit Kat numbers. Creamier of vocal delivery is Claire Elizabeth Davies’s Fräulein Kost, who makes melodious work of the haunting, rising-Third-Reich theme song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”