PROVINCETOWN — It was the evening before Provincetown’s Carnival parade, and Commercial Street was filled with half-naked people in 10-inch heels and three-foot Afros. Loud men in thongs hawked tickets to “Bearlesque.” It was our last chance to see it! Seven p.m.! The feeling of freedom and unabashed sexuality extended to the stage of Fishermen Hall, where the Peregrine Theatre Ensemble is performing John Kander’s and Fred Ebb’s 1966 musical “Cabaret” through Aug. 31.
Huge picture and mirror frames lay across the back of the stage, and hazy smoke drifted through the air. The lighting was a central part of the performance, conveying everything from moods to scenery: flickering light bulbs in the startling or disturbing scenes; dark except for a spotlight in the grim solos; flashy red lights for the garish Kit Kat Klub.
“There are 900 light cues during the show,” Eitan Markowitz, the stage manager, remarked in an interview before the performance. “And he does every one!” added Grace Smyth, who plays Texas, one of the Kit Kat Girls.
The show is an extraordinarily immersive experience for the audience. The Emcee, played by Ryan McNevin, addresses us eye-to-eye almost every time he speaks. Toward the end of the show he even chose a dazed volunteer to dance with him onstage. The choreography, by director Kyle Pleasant, is daring and vivid, using every inch of the small stage. Conductor Chris Prio leads a tight band of musicians who lurk at the back of the stage, adding to the illusion that we are in a disreputable but thrilling nightclub.
Equally exciting is the fact that every character is heavily involved in every scene, even if they are only loitering in the shadows.
“Every character has a name,” said Bella Rusli, who plays a Kit Kat Girl named Helga. “We all have our own story,” noted Smyth. With every character identifiable and memorable, it’s impossible to dismiss them as unimportant.
The story is set between the two world wars, right before Hitler came to power in Germany. American wannabe novelist Cliff Bradshaw, played by Owen O’Leary, comes to Berlin to write and discovers a city filled with sex, drugs, and stubborn denial of the looming Holocaust. He makes a friend, Ernst Ludwig, who (spoiler alert!) turns out in Act 2 to be a Nazi.
The sexually ambiguous Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub runs a raunchy operation of young prostitutes — male, female, and in-between. Sally Bowles, played by Sarah Thorn, is an English runaway, romantic, alcoholic, and addicted, who falls for Cliff. Fraulein Schneider, played by Halcyone Joseph Cabral, runs a boarding house and falls in love with Herr Schultz, played by Ian Leahy, a fruit seller — and a Jew. Tension between the characters builds until the final scene, when Cliff decides to run home to America, and the people left behind face the reality of the coming Nazi regime.
Nothing about this show is insignificant, especially today. “A lot of the story is about coming to terms with what’s happening in reality,” said Markowitz. “It’s still relevant.”
Right now, many in America are in denial — whether it’s about the human rights violations at the border, the climate crisis, or the oppression that still exists in various forms all around the country. “Cabaret” reminds us of our human habit of dismissing and denying until it’s too late.
“For a long time, Provincetown has been a safe haven,” said Eli Neslund, who plays Ernst Ludwig. “I think people really feel it here.” To be reminded of the persecution that gay and Jewish people endured and still endure while we bask in the glory of Provincetown is a startling contrast.
The show is breathtakingly bold and fabulous, but it clearly calls out an audience of everyday people. Fraulein Schneider sings a song called “What Would You Do?” as she fearfully cancels her engagement to the Jewish Herr Schultz. During the song, the audience is forced to consider what we might do if faced with a choice like hers: stand our ground and face the consequences? Or back away in silence?
“The original production of ‘Cabaret’ had a mirror at the end with the audience just staring at themselves,” said Markowitz. It’s a show that forces us to consider how we want our own story to end.
“Cabaret” is on stage at Fishermen Hall, 12 Winslow St. in Provincetown, Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. through Aug. 31. Tickets are $45 at the door, at www.peregrinetheatre.com, or by calling 774-538-9084.