Review: At Porchlight, an Entertaining Cabaret Features Plenty of Talent but Not the Seriousness the Show Requires

Every season on Broadway, new American musicals premiere in the hopes of entering the country’s long and storied canon of productions that can be revisited and revived for decades to come. Some are more successful than others, and, in the case of Kandor & Ebb’s 1966 lounge musical Cabaret, only become more prescient with time and perspective. Though Porchlight Music Theatre’s latest production, on stage through March 5, doesn’t break any new ground in the story of Sally Bowles, Cliff Bradshaw and the impending Nazi occupation in Germany (and beyond), the show remains both an entertaining romp through Berlin’s misfit underbelly and a bittersweet saga of survival.

Directed by Porchlight’s long-time artistic director Michael Webber, Cabaret features a cast diverse in background as well as in talent, some of the key cast delivering knock-out solos while others seem to be trying too hard to impress (and still coming up short). Erica Stephan makes her memorable Porchlight debut as Sally Bowles, the British siren of the Kit Kat Klub, Berlin’s vibrant and sexy nightclub catering to the city’s desires and affairs. We’re ushered in by the Emcee, here played by Josh Walker as though someone is paying him by the exaggerated gesture. Aspiring American writer Cliff Bradshaw is the show’s unsung (literally, he barely gets a song) hero, and Gilbert Domally holds his own as a naive but well-meaning romantic. The cast is rounded out by Josiah Haugen as Ernst, Mary Robin Roth as Fraulein Schneider, Mark David Kaplan as Herr Schultz, and a troupe of actors playing the cabaret’s dancers and performers.

When it was revived by Sam Mendes in 2014, the production leaned into the post- and pre-war minimalism of 1930s Berlin (try finding an actual color anywhere in those costumes or set design); here, Webber and team revert to a more predictable staging, full of sequins and feathers on the club stage (costumes by Bill Morey) and period-appropriate house dresses and day suits off of it. The small house on Dearborn Street is transformed into a vaulted train station, with imposing rafters framing a stage that hosts the show’s band far upstage behind the action. Downstage serves as space for Kit Kat Klub tables or, with the help of a few rolling doorways, the boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (set design by Angela Weber Miller). Porchlight always does an admirable job of creating a unique space for its productions, and Cabaret is no exception.

Cabaret does much of its plot and character development in its longer first act, and this is where Stephan makes her biggest impact, too. We get a hint of her talent in the playful “Don’t Tell Momma,” but she truly delivers in a heartbreaking “Maybe This Time,” just a few scenes later. Roth and Kaplan are perhaps the next most watchable in the production, their fragile but genuine love story playing out warmly against a political climate determined to keep them apart. As Cliff gets wise to what’s really happening with Ernst and the errands he sends him on to Paris, we’re let into the drama, too, and it’s never easier to watch, that disgusting swastika popping up on costumes and props.

It’s here that the show loses its footing for me, as Webber and team can’t seem to make the transition from show-stopping club numbers to the very real, very serious reality steamrolling its way into these characters’ lives. The musical takes a compelling and ultimately devastating turn in its second act, and yet this version never quite delivers that deeply affecting gut-punch with much strength at all. Even the rousing (and then unsettling) rounds of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” feel like caricatures here, pale comparisons to the harbingers of doom this song really should be.

All that said, in the dead of an ever-colder Chicago winter, Porchlight again delivers an entertaining and well-produced staging of one of America’s most revered original musicals. It may not go down as one of the theater’s best (they’ve produced better), and it may not be remembered among the ranks of Cabaret‘s more impressive re-stagings, but it’s nevertheless as timely as ever and featuring just enough solid talent to make it worth a night out supporting local theater.

Cabaret is onstage at Porchlight Music Theatre (1016 N. Dearborn St.) through March 5; tickets start at $25. More information, showtimes and tickets are available online.

For more information on this and other productions, see

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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