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In the world of Cabaret, escapism delights and reality hurts

The program for Cabaret, a Baruch College student musical produced by the Jewish studies center and the fine and performing arts department promises the exploration of “contemporary themes in another era,” as social and political issues similar to those of 2018 would be presented. This expectation, as set forth by directors Ruthie Ostrow and Zeynep Akca — regulars in the Baruch theatrical scene — is met, not with potshot Trump references or with throwaway nods to current politics, but through meaningful dramaturgy and moments that pull the rug right out from under the audience in the Bernie West Theater.

Based on the play by John Van Druten, Cabaret tells two stories: that of the Kit Kat Klub, where the boundaries of taboo are pushed relentlessly by the ever-present Emcee, and that of Clifford Bradshaw, an American writer in love with a Kit Kat singer named Sally Bowles. Taking place in Berlin during the rise to power of the Nazi party, Cabaret is shadowed throughout by the hints of a dark reality edging inward.

The character of the Emcee is a role that tends to be played by men in some form of drag, leather or lingerie, but Ostrow and Akca chose a woman for the role instead. Wearing a coat and tails top above garters and fishnet stockings, Sonia Vaygen plays the role with a glee that shines through, immediately recognizable as one of the show’s assets.

Vaygen shines in musical highlights “Two Ladies” and “Money,” singing in a faux-German accent within the attic setting of the Kit Kat Klub about the values of polyamory and greed. Where Vaygen’s physical presence commands the stage, her vocal presentation suffers; her husky voice competes with the music, but is often drowned out, disappointingly.

It is in the Emcee’s world of anything-goes openness where the production is at its most fun. Michael Schulz’s lighting design transforms the stage into a magical, other-worldly location without the need for radical set changes. Most everything stays onstage, getting shuffled between scenes, including the actors, who can often be seen changing costumes on the sidelines. When the red-green lights take over the stage, Cabaret is at its most energetic, in an escapist world that comes back to hurt audience members who get attached.

The real world of the show is nowhere near as intoxicating, a clear creative decision with unintended consequences. Adrian Suriel plays the writer, Cliff, but his deliveries are awkward, and his movements are inelegant. The way Suriel falls on a bed or claps his own hand to evoke the sense of a slap are uncomfortable to watch, and he offers no charisma to play a compelling romantic lead.

Abigail Jim’s portrayal of the singer, Sally, the other romantic lead, is simply amazing, though it’s in the singing where she really excels. In the penultimate song, “Cabaret,” Jim powerfully belts while expressing conflicting emotions merely through facial expression. It’s an impressive and heart-wrenching performance moment, the kind of emotion that doesn’t really appear in the story of Cliff and Sally.

Even as the story draws clear lines of who to focus on, the real star of Cabaret is Aryan Peralta, who plays Herr Schultz in the real world and Victor in the detached reality of the Kit Kat Klub. As Schultz, Peralta is sweet and gentle in his deliveries of oranges and his giving of hugs so warm they can be felt from offstage. As Victor, Peralta joins in various dance numbers, giving his all and gazing out at the audience with a sultry stare. Presence is a valuable asset in Cabaret, and Peralta brings it and then some.

“I say, are you trying to shock me?” Cliff asks at one point, referring to Sally’s actions and, unwittingly, to the musical around him. Cabaret eschews heteronormativity, with same-gendered dancing, feminine presentation by male actors and a general expectation of flexibility in the partners with which one would share a kiss, a waltz or a bed.

This is not the area where the production goes for shock value, instead creating a sense of acceptance in a place where love is love.

The shock, instead, comes in the reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the demented love song “If You Could See Her” and the purposefully dissonant “Finale.” It hurts to see the red armband, the pink and yellow triangles or the electric candles held by actors, eight across. It is in these moments where the students show their skills.

The flaws come through in various forms. There are the flubbed lines, some awkward deliveries or accents that don’t stay consistent. David Raufova, as the German Ernst Ludwig, delivers his lines with a musical lilt, but since he keeps using the same two lilts to deliver every line, it gets tiresome — despite Raufova’s abundant charisma and wonderful skill in playing violin in the background at times.

The punches are better than the kicking in the fight coordination and the actors, without microphones, are sometimes left to fight the more powerful sound. At the end of it all, Cabaret excels more than it offers shortcomings.

The third Baruch show directed by Ostrow and Akca and the first complete work produced by E. Daar — a stage name for Emily Daar, who previously produced a musical workshop — is powerful, a testament to the value of student productions. Almost three hours long, Cabaret is the kind of show that caring audiences won’t want to leave, until they do, when clapping feels wrong and a hesitation as powerful as thunderous applause hangs in the air.

Editor’s Note: All staff members of The Ticker involved in the show had no part in this review’s editorial process. Ruthie Ostrow is a copy editor, trombonist Julian Tineo is photography editor and production assistant Reuven Glezer is a senior staff writer.

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