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YSU’s ‘Cabaret’ is bold, impressive

YOUNGSTOWN — The musical “Cabaret” conjures images of the seedy Kit Kat Club, sultry dancers and decadence in the shadow of looming danger.

Youngstown State University theater’s production of the John Kander / Fred Ebb / Joe Masteroff musical has all of that. But the element that may be the most heart-wrenching is a late-in-life love story between a boarding house owner and one of her tenants.

The relationship between Ace Lowry’s Fraulein Schneider and Ben Mowrer’s fruit stand owner (and German Jew) Herr Schultz becomes the emotional core of this production. The actors, playing characters decades older than their actual ages, are convincing in the roles and in their affection for each other. It makes their ultimate separation that much more powerful after Schneider recognizes the risks of marrying a Jew in Germany in 1929 as the Nazi party is on the rise a decade after the end of World War I.

Lowry, in particular, has a very natural delivery on songs like “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married” that makes those numbers resonate.

One of the boldest choices in director Matthew Mazuroski’s staging is having a woman, Rosie Bresson, play the Master of Ceremonies, a role traditionally played by a man (Joel Grey in the original Broadway production and the 1972 film, and Alan Cumming in the 1993 London and 1998 Broadway revivals).

It’s a casting choice that works spectacularly, so I’m surprised it’s not done more often. Early on, Bresson’s German accent was so thick that it kept a couple of the MC’s more biting one-liners from landing with the punch they deserved, but Bresson displayed the look, the attitude and the vocal prowess the character needs.

Also good are Nate Montgomery as writer Cliff Bradshaw, an American who arrives in Berlin looking for inspiration for his next novel, and Nathan Wagner as Ernst Ludwig, a seemingly jovial German that Cliff meets on the way to Berlin.

As Sally Bowles, AnnMarie Lowerre’s accent feels over-enunciated and mannered, even if it fits the diva-esque nature of her character. But her vocal numbers are magnificent, particularly on the title song in Act II, which is delivered with the mix of pain and resignation required due to what happens before it.

The staging amplifies the power of the moment, with Lowerre isolated and alone under somewhat harsh lighting.

Mazuroski’s presentation of the musical numbers is one of the production’s many strengths. Bresson’s rendition of “I Don’t Care Much” is haunting and beautiful, starting at the top of a spiral staircase at the side of the stage and sung as she slowly moves down the spiral and across the stage.

Todd Dicken’s stage design reinforces the themes of the musical. It’s dominated by two large panels with images inspired by German Expressionist art. Those images become more monochromatic and menacing as the Nazis assert their presence.

More than 50 years after its Broadway debut and 90 years after its time frame, “Cabaret” still packs a wallop.

Lines like “If you’re not against all this, you’re for it — or you might as well be” refer to the rise of the Nazis, but they’re just as applicable to issues of politics and human rights today, which is implicit in YSU’s staging.

The final image of the show is so powerful, it knocks the wind out of the audience, so much so that the opening night crowd seemed too shell-shocked to give the cast the ovation it deserved.

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