Before discussing John McIlwee’s recent, often astonishingly effective, production of Cabaret for University Theatre at N.C. State (Oct. 1-5), a few side observations on the show’s artistic progenitors.

First, Christopher Isherwood. Although heavily camouflaged, Isherwood’s dispatches from pre-Hitler Berlin collected in Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin are the font from which all else flows: the John Van Druten play I Am a Camera, which first enshrined Sally Bowles as the central figure of the franchise (she’s only one of many in the Isherwood stories) and its subsequent film; the 1966 musicalization; the great 1972 Bob Fosse film, arguably the finest movie musical of the past 50 years; and the current, aggressively de-glamorized 1998 revision, still tempting New York audiences with its slightly sinister opening number of welcome. (When it closes in November, it will have run nearly twice as long as the original production.)

Each incarnation of the material has played fast-and-loose with its source, to varying degrees of success; the Fosse film comes closest, but even it transforms the Isherwood figure from ardent homophile to reluctant bisexual. (At an early screening, Isherwood was heard to hiss, “It’s a G– d— lie! I never slept with a woman in my life!”) But no version, even the gritty recent edition put together by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, has had the courage to deal honestly with the author as an observer of, and participant in, the action. Isherwood went to Germany in search of an idealized romantic friendship; his fictional compatriots are there to write, or teach English, or both certainly not to indulge their erotic imaginations with the more adventurous boys of Berlin. Worse, every edition of this material gets the Isherwood figure (whether called Chris, Cliff, or Brian) romantically and sexually involved with Sally Bowles.

Skipping over such matters as Christopher’s Americanization like Sally, he was British the second difficulty with Cabaret is its secondary leads: a pair of Rodgers and Hammerstein holdovers, they’re purveyors of the subplot, made more relevant only by dint of their confrontation with nascent Nazi-era anti-Semitism. Fräulein Schneider, the landlady, and her Jewish beau Herr Schultz are vividly rendered, and Schneider benefited originally from the inspired casting of Lotte Lenya, a living link to the era and the Kurt Weill-ish vamps by the show’s composer John Kander. But they’re still largely comic relief until late in the first act. Their story, however affecting, is as with Sally and Cliff all too conventional for a musical as boldly theatrical as this one.

Which brings us rather neatly to Harold Prince. More than anyone else, it is Prince who “created” Cabaret, or at least, gave it its iconic style. I would go so far as to say without fear of contradiction that Hal Prince has had a greater influence on musical theatre, both here and abroad, than any other single figure of the past 40 years. Devotees of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon aren’t aware of it, but the shows they love are the direct result of the innovations Prince (with Jerome Robbins, and abetted by Stephen Sondheim) bequeathed to the musical play: continuous action, unbroken by all those boring blackouts to shift the scenery; complex, contrapuntal intermingling of scene, character, and song; juxtapositions and narrative commentary that buttress and expand upon the emotive and intellectual cores of the shows themselves. More than staging his musicals, Prince has shaped or re-shaped them, often before their authors’ ink was dry. With Cabaret more than most what you see today, however revised, exists only because Harold Prince dreamt it first.

It was Prince who recalled the midget M.C. of a seedy dive in post-World War II Berlin, patent-leather hair parted down the middle, face whitened and lips painted red. It was Prince as well who, floored by a performance of the Taganka Theatre in Russia, burned to adapt its radical notions of staging and brilliant use of light. It was Prince, too, who gave the show its central metaphor: the tilted mirror over the stage which rose and fell, reflecting and implicating the audience. It was also Prince who, with his librettist Joe Masteroff, took 15 minutes of introductory material and wove it into the show itself, each number now illustrating the hedonism of the late Weimar era and commenting on the action. And it was Prince’s notion that the Emcee (and other characters as well) should observe the action of the “book” scenes, from various vantage-points, throughout the evening. There was, of course, a superbly dark score by the always-underrated Kander and his lyricist Fred Ebb, and Masteroff’s concise, effective book; but it was Prince’s direction of the show that made Cabaret, with Fiddler on the Roof (which he also produced), one of the two essential musicals of the 1960s.

Prince’s creative spirit hovered over the recent production of the Mendes edition of Cabaret at Stewart Theatre, beginning with the pre-show arrival of the Kit Kat Klub’s audience: the maitre d’ teased a leather-clad waiter, playfully swatting his bottom; a drunken, eye-patch and fez-wearing Moroccan tottered drunkenly about the stage; a pair of pinstripe-suited Lesbians flirted with a lumpen showgirl; a cabaret boy crossed by, in half-drag, while respectable ladies and gents thrilled to the demi-monde around them. The Kit Kat Klub was now very much a dive, tattered and stripped of all glamour, the girls more closely resembling the blowsy Valkyries of the Fosse vision tawdry, dumpy, and omnisexual.

This, more earthy version of the cabaret also rings changes in the opportunistic figure of the Emcee. He still sports make-up and parted hair (in this production, Dan Seda wore garish, glitter lipstick) but his tuxedo has been replaced with a bare chest augmented by parachute straps, and his manner is even seedier than the more familiar Joel Grey characterization. This Emcee positively glories in his own vulgarity and (seeming) pansexuality. I say “seeming” because at the end of the evening he’s dressed in the striped uniform of the concentration camp inmate, an unambiguous pink triangle pasted over his chest.

McIlwee took a few liberties of his own, such as adding a trio of boy singers clad as brown-shirted Hitler Youth to perform the show’s Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” their beautiful voices a perfect counterpoint to the ominous lyric and their angelic Aryan looks a chilling reminder. (This year marks the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the more or less beginning of the Nazi pogroms against the Jews of Germany.)

The cast of this production was just about perfect, from the protean Bobby of Jeff Spanner, whose interpolations included a stint as one of the Emcee’s “Two Ladies” and the female gorilla courted by the Emcee in the alternately hilarious and bone-freezing gymnastic buck-and-wing “If You Could See Her,” to the spectacularly effective Sally of Katie Flaherty.

Sarah Schrock was a warm, funny Fräulein Schneider, her almost maniac devotion to being sensible finally winning out over her romantic feelings for Herr Schultz (Fred Gorelick). Long a University Theatre favorite, Schrock had an unerring sense of movement, gesture, and intonation: when the inevitable Nazi brick was hurled through Schultz’s fruit-shop window, her reading of Schneider’s line “I understand… ” carried within it all of the character’s warring emotions. That one moment, devastating in its clarity, was easily as heartbreaking as Schrock’s impassioned rendition of that haunting ode to practicality, “What Would You Do?”

Gorelick gave a lovely interpretation of Schultz, his blindness to the reality closing in on him most movingly conveyed at the end when, with incomparable and exceptionally underplayed dignity he sealed his own fate with the unutterably sad statement of defiance, “After all, what am I? A German.” Kate Isley made the most of her role as the opportunistic Fräulein Kost, a whore who like so many Germans of the period places her shattered faith in the promise of National Socialism.

Curtis Kirkhoff, lithe and blond, was practically a poster child for the Nazi movement as the charmingly seductive Ernest Ludwig who, in this version of the show, is reputedly attracted sexually to Cliff making him less an SS man than a member of the SA although I could detect no sign of this. Will Sanders’ Cliff was a well-meaning minnow swimming against the increasing current of nationalism. The Mendes revision leaves him largely un-musicalized, which works toward making him a more Isherwoodian figure, observing but never quite a part of, the events. And that brings us to Katie Flaherty’s utterly flawless Sally Bowles.

Hal Prince felt that Sally, a third-rate entertainer in a fifth-rate nightclub, wouldn’t be much of a singer. He caught a large measure of flack for this decision, but as Mendes proved in his casting of Natasha Richardson, it can be made to work. The essential contradiction of the Fosse film is the presence of Liza Minnelli who, great as she was (will she ever be again?), sang far too well to be quite believable, yet pulled us over that hitch in logic with consummate musicianship and complete conviction. The same may be said of Flaherty, whose intensity, overwhelming strength of personality, and explosive vocal ability somehow made the fantasy work. The quality of her singing put me in mind of the clarion belt of Bernadette Peters, but that isn’t saying nearly enough to convey the sheer, staggering force with which she essayed those familiar anthems.

When she stepped outside the scene she was playing with Cliff to imagine herself as the (in Ebb’s curiously un-Sallylike phrase) “Lady peaceful/Lady happy” of “Maybe This Time,” Flaherty almost made us believe the character’s momentary self-delusion. And when, late in the second act, she confronted Cliff with the news of having aborted “their” child, Flaherty allowed Sally’s pain to surface incrementally but without the hysteria a lesser actor would be tempted to indulge. Her performance of “Cabaret” was masterly. When she sang, “I used to have this girlfriend/Known as Elsie,” her faraway look suggested she had really just recalled that girl a stand-in for Sally herself who succumbed to “too much pills and liquor.” And her movements, increasingly frantic, became a kind of mad invocation; this Sally Bowles was desperate to convince herself that life really was a cabaret, old chum.

Matching Flaherty blow-for-blow (a feat in itself) was Dan Seda’s polymorphously perverse Emcee. His body a fluid mass of unabashed exhibitionism, his every leer a come-on to some as-yet undiscovered level of Hell, and possessing a voice that floated with seeming ease from high baritone to lyric tenor, Seda gave an account not of evil but of show-biz with a death’s-head grin: his Emcee’s foolish embrace of National Socialism, born of god only knows what sense of self-satisfied pragmatism, is only a reprieve. By the end, it has betrayed him, as it did so many others. His support of its gleaming promise was not enough to keep that pink triangle off his cadaverous chest.

I cannot say enough about how the varied elements of this production Cindy Hoban’s exuberantly vulgar choreography; Julie Florin’s superbly balanced musical direction; Crawford Pratt’s marvelously tatty and inventive set designs; Terri L. Janney’s evocative, chiaroscuro lighting effects; Ida Bostian’s cheerily decadent costumes illuminated the dark corners of this great, flawed masterpiece of American musical theater. Nor can I convey the authoritative command with which John McIlwee mounted it. For well over a decade now this witty, congenial man has been quietly directing some of the Triangle’s most consistently engaging productions, usually with scant (and often willfully dismissive) critical praise. It’s long past time his undemonstrative genius was acknowledged. Consider it done now, and gratefully.

University Theatre at N.C. State: Broadway: [inactive 3/04]. 1972 Film: