6 February 2017 | 3:23 pm | Alannah Maher

"The most potent punch Cabaret packs is its warning message about how intolerance and extremism can lead a society to disaster."

The Hayes Theatre have kicked off their 2017 season with one of the most beloved and risque musicals of all time, Cabaret.

Set against 1929 Berlin, where social and sexual liberation tousle against the encroaching threat of Nazi fascism, this Kander and Ebb musical follows impoverished American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Jason Kos) as he discovers the underground world of the Kit Kat Klub, the hottest cabaret club in Germany, and falls for English stage siren Sally Bowles (Chelsea Gibb). 

The energy of Cabaret is bigger than the sum of its parts, and this production creates a perfectly lurid setting, as the intimate 100-seat theatre itself becomes an imagining of the Kit Kat Klub. A handful of lucky punters can even take advantage of the cabaret table seating in the front row, immersing them in the action. For scenes outside of the Klub, this production doesn't overdo it with busy sets, using simple props to engage some classic theatre of the mind.

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The absolute love and care poured into this production by Producer David M Hawkins and his team is evident. For all the glitz and glam, it also doesn't shirk away from the grit and grime of the world it envelopes. Under Director Nicholas Christo and Resident Director Thern Reynolds, the cast all shed an extra layer (and I'm not only referring to the cheeky costumes by Production Designer James Browne).

While the main relationship arc may be largely heterosexual, Cabaret is at its core a celebration of queerness and fluidity. The Emcee personifies this, the mysterious gender-ambiguous Master of Ceremonies of the Kit Kat Klub (and the show at large), played by Paul Capsis in the role of a lifetime.

Speaking candidly at the opening night after party, Capsis was evidently humbled by the opportunity to play The Emcee, a role he had long since given up on, and thought that by now he'd be "too old" for: "I kind of feel like I've played him in different guises, like I've played versions of that character. But until we actually did this, I thought 'no, this is different — this is demanding, this is not easy'," he said.

Capsis is magnetic from start to finish, exercising his unique vocal range and explosive characterisation in a performance that also demonstrates refinement and respect for the role. You could very well turn up solely to watch him, but that is not to diminish the sum charisma of the entire well-rounded cast. Everyone from the supplementary characters to the girls and boys of the Kit Kat Klub is engrossing, and feels like an essential piece to the puzzle. "No one leaves anything in the dressing room," as Kate Fitzpatrick (Fraulein Schneider) puts it. 

Another trouper of the Australian entertainment industry, Fitzpatrick breathes new life into her role as the boarding house owner who falls into a later-life romance with Jewish fruit shop owner Herr Schultz (endearingly portrayed by John O'May). While Fraulein Schneider is often considered the most wooden character of Cabaret, Fitzpatrick looked to Joe Masteroff's writing in fleshing out a funny, emotive take on this world-weary survivor. Her rendition of What Would You Do? in the second act is stirring.

Another performer in the role of a lifetime, Chelsea Gibb delivers a powerful portrayal of Sally Bowles, a rare musical role where the acting matters more than the singing. Gibb's characterisation is well balanced; Sally may well play off her sexuality and feminine allure, but as aloof as she may be to politics, she has a strong understanding of people, herself and her needs. By the time she sings the iconic song Cabaret towards the end of Act 2, the groundwork Gibb has put in pays off and the significance of this song as a turning point comes to the fore. She also offers one of the most chilling lines in modern musical history — "That's just politics, what does that have to do with us?"

It's true that aside from the song and dance numbers, the most potent punch Cabaret packs is its warning about how intolerance and extremism can lead a society to disaster when it goes unchecked. A terribly poignant message considering today's political environment, many of the events in the play seem to run parallel with issues we face today.

Have your tissues ready for this one, and if you haven't watched the iconic 1970s film adaption starring Liza Minnelli recently (or ever), wait until you've seen this first. There's never been a better time to come to the cabaret.