Sam Mendes’s ‘Cabaret’ icy and not much fun at the Kennedy Center

Friday, 14 July 2017, 02:11:02 PM. Hell freezes over in Roundabout Theatre’s in-your-face staging.

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Jon Peterson and the national touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Cabaret.” (Joan Marcus)

Maybe tomorrow belongs to a different kind of “Cabaret.” The defiantly strident production that Sam Mendes first concocted around Alan Cumming’s nasty Emcee at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1993 is winding down after a long, frigid reign. The Roundabout Theatre Company’s version, co-directed by Mendes and choreographer Rob Marshall, is finishing its tour at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, where it continues to be imposing, dour, and not much fun.

The grubby cynicism is showbiz-averse, and it harshly overstates the obvious as Berlin’s seedy Kit Kat Klub naturally segues into the thuggish Nazi rise.

This “Cabaret” is not just sour and menacing but curdled and festering with rot. As the audience gathers, the Kit Kat girls (in ripped fishnets and lingerie) limber up onstage with leg lifts and vivid splits, as if prepping for a peep show. Their dead-eyed dances of thigh-burning squats and naughty hip rolls are zombie burlesques, all body and no soul.

Jon Peterson competently steps into Cumming’s punk shorts and shirtless, suspender-snapping bravado, nipples rouged and sarcasm dripping. This Emcee is rough trade all the way — far rougher, of course, than Joel Grey’s devilish, damned portrayal in the 1972 movie. Peterson, singing in steely tones, is lean and leering, a terror daring you to stomach his gross jokes as he sashays through the impishly coupling “Two Ladies” (one of them a guy in drag) and the rhythmically clipped “Money.”

If the Emcee is the show’s brute force, Sally Bowles ought to be its zest. The sturdy-voiced Leigh Ann Larkin has wide eyes and a big smile that she beams on Benjamin Eakeley’s Clifford Bradshaw, but to little effect. Cliff, a bisexual would-be novelist, is the Christopher Isherwood figure — Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” are the show’s source material — but Eakeley rushes through the role, as if real feeling would be out of place in this decadence machine. If Sally can’t charm him, she can’t win us.

But Mendes never wanted us to be won. His Sally sings “Cabaret” in a state of shock, full of wrath as she stares down her bleak future, and all actresses, Larkin included, sound the same in this climactic moment. It’s not powerful; it’s blunt, one-dimensional, stripped of complication.

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Even ze orchestra eez beautiful: “Cabaret” on tour at the Kennedy Center. (Joan Marcus)

You still feel you’re in the presence of one of the great musicals, thanks to the story’s steady historical creep and the John Kander-Fred Ebb tunes that have been drilled into the American culture’s bones since 1966. The performance, with tour direction credited to BT McNicholl, certainly marches with precision, and the onstage orchestra whirs merrily through the score, saxes buzzing and a lively banjo suggesting a carefree attitude that you understand is fake. The musicians enjoy an extended turn in the spotlight after intermission, and it’s the only time the crowd gets revved up.

If “Cabaret” feels omnipresent, it’s because it is. Another version of this production came to the Warner Theatre with Teri Hatcher and Norbert Leo Butz in 1999, and with a non-Equity cast in 2001. Arlington’s Signature Theatre staged the show in 1995. Arena Stage gave it a whirl in 2006. Signature was at it again in 2015.

“Marred only by the overwrought contemporary conviction that ‘Cabaret’ has to club an audience over the head with its moral weight,” The Post’s Peter Marks wrote of that last Signature model. The Mendes mold has been dominant; the vehicle could use a rest, and then a fresh vision. For now, as the Kennedy Center’s other current Nazi threat musical tenant would put it, auf Wiedersehen. Good night.

Cabaret. Book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Originally directed by Sam Mendes, co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall; tour directed by BT McNicholl. Costumes, William Ivey Long; set, Robert Brill; lights, Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari; music director, Robert Cookman; sound design, Keith Caggiano. With Alison Ewing, Mary Gordon Murray, Scott Robertson and Patrick Vaill. About 2½ hours. Through Aug. 6 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets $59-$149. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

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