Cabaret is a different kind of theatre. It can be comical or melancholy, sultry or seedy, but it’s always engaged. Imposed by the size and setup of the venue – bar, tavern, hole-in-the wall – a cabaret thrives on cozy setups. Performers can see and react to every smile, smirk, and number of libations consumed. Likewise, the audience experiences the performer’s wobbles, jokes, and sweat directly, without the mitigating distance of a stage.

It’s this interactive, experiential quality that makes Showstoppers: A Lesson in Show Tunes, playing at Hartigan’s Irish Pub, downright gratifying. Presented by Rachael Houdek’s Cabaret and Stephen Seay Productions, Showstoppers makes live theatre feel alive.

Showstoppers’ narrative premise follows six high school students, one overachieving graduate, and miscellaneous school staff who together are assembling a show called Anything Glee Can Do… The plot doesn’t drive the action as much as it fills in time between music and dance numbers, and that is fine by us. With the musical numbers front and center, everyone in the remarkable cast has a chance to display their unique talents for song or comedy or, more often, both.  

Student Jason (Jason Barney) revealed his vocal chops early in the show when he led a male quartet through The Four Seasons’ “Sherry.” Jaws dropped, then whooping ensued. His finest moment, though, came in his solo performance of “Just Keep Moving the Line,” a song pulled from the canceled NBC musical drama Smash. A great song delivered by a stellar performer in an intimate setting – yes, please.

Showstoppers Artistic Director Rachael Houdek, cast in the role of star pupil, delivered many of the production’s big female vocals, but the subtleties of the less showy “I’m Not That Girl” from the Broadway production of Wicked better illustrated her strength as a singer. That said, she and Student Veda’s (Veda Covington) dynamic but unfussy take on “River Deep, Mountain High” left us wishing there were more rich-toned, soul-inspired numbers in the line-up.

New Student Leslie (Leslie Ann Giles) offered some of the most authentic emotions with her rendition of “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” while Kat Allwell’s (Kat Caldwell) overbearingly bubbly personality encapsulated trying too hard. Student Stacy (Stacy Crickenberger), despite the fact that she appears noticeably happier in the ensemble, achieved a moment in her solo of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” when her palpable vulnerability went from anxiety inducing to moving. A genuine, if tentative, connection began to form between audience and performer – exactly what cabaret can offer at its raw and honest best. Then a performer entered from stage left to dance around Stacy while she sang, and we all went back to our distracted, ironic selves. 

Lunch Lady Liza (Christopher Jones, who co-wrote the show with Tania Kelly and Jay Russell) steals the show more than once. “Liza with a Z” was so expertly rendered, she had the audience in the palm of her manicured hand. Liza’s coconspirator Chita (Jay Russell) wins the best costume prize, based solely on the excessively teased blonde wig with lunchroom-appropriate accessories.

Aside from a few moments of unfortunate tap dancing, Showstoppers makes for refreshing, hilarious theatre that doesn’t rely on meanness to achieve wit. The lip-synced rendition of “Hey Big Spender” kills, and the smart “Do Re Mi” mash-up delivers on both laughs and execution. Executive Producer Stephen Seay, playing the role of the musical theatre teacher, holds the plot together just enough to let his cast shine; it’s no surprise that his productions have led to numerous acting awards for the performers who have worked with him.

Bawdy at times, questionably serious but satisfying at others, Showstoppers makes you wish every pub was a cabaret. Thankfully repeat collaborators Stephen Seay and Rachel Houdek seem to enjoy working together. Their next show, Vanities, opens August 17.