A beautiful love story tremulously unfolds in the Washington University's student production of Cabaret, and when it falls to pieces it pierces your heart with a nagging ache. Watching two people find solace in one another amid the decadence of 1930s Berlin and the encroaching terror of the Nazis is life-affirming, even though you know that death stalks the lovers even as it strides the land. What's so surprising about Annamaria Pileggi's staging of the jazzy musical is that it's not the fleeting half-love of the incandescent Sally Bowles (Sarah Palay) and the flaccid novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Billy Biegler).
There are in fact several surprises in this Cabaret, about which the less said now the more you'll enjoy them when they're sprung. Just be aware that the show moves around the theater a bit, and that you could end up fairly close to the action even if you don't snag one of the seats at a table onstage.
There's nothing really wrong with the Sally-Cliff relationship, but there's not much right with it, either. They're both strong singers with big voices, so the musical numbers are powerful if not always affecting. Palay is a suitably brassy Bowles, delivering her lines with an archness that starts off as pretentious but eventually settles into a mere affectation. That's a good stance to take with Sally Bowles, whose life is one grand performance.
But Biegler's Cliff never strikes the spark required to attract Sally; he labors through his lines, stifling any passion that might flare in their love affair. As a result, the staid American never convincingly succumbs to the madcap world of Bowles and nocturnal Berlin. For him it all just seems to be an uncomfortable vacation.
Fraulein Schneider (Ariel Saul) and Herr Schultz (Micajah Dudley), however, are a love story for the ages. Saul imbues the aged landlady with cautious pragmatism, while Dudley brings a lively optimism to the affable old Jewish shopkeeper who woos the spinster with gifts from his fruit stand. You can see the transfer of energy between the two in their first duet, "It Couldn't Please Me More (the Pineapple Song)," as Schultz's generous spirit jumpstarts Schneider's cold heart.
Pileggi stages the pair's doomed relationship magnificently, as their wedding party is crashed by Ernest the Nazi (Eric Gustafson), then shanghaied by a singing whore (Anna Richards, a fine comic) and the specter of Adolf Hitler. The company forms ranks while singing the patriotic "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" and freezes in a tableau of Nazi salutes and maniacal grins. The Emcee (Pete Winfrey) drifts across the stage, and cues up a Hitler rally speech on the Victrola. Winfrey looks out at the audience with a wicked gleam in his eye, waggles the cigar in his mouth and saunters offstage with studied nonchalance. As the contents of your stomach commence to curdle, Pileggi stretches out the moment interminably, letting Hitler exhort his way through the entire intermission. (Even more impressive, she tops that bit of stagecraft in the play's finale, amplifying the terror and the tragedy of it all with a short, sharp shock.)
Winfrey is excellent vom Anfang bis zum Ende, capturing the malevolent-trickster nature of the Emcee in every flourish and punch line. He alone seems to realize that he's a dead man walking the last mile of his journey, and he's going to savor every second. Musical director Henry Palkes steers his jazz combo through the score with spot-on zazz. Look for Tim Rice, who plays drums with a showman's flair. You can't miss him: He's the one with the sparkly dress, the bobbed wig and the Hitler mustache.