You can get a whiff of that atmosphere when you step through the heavy black curtains covering the theater entrance at Kalliope Stage and witness a brutally magnificent staging of Cabaret. This version of the show, popularized on film in 1972, is stripped down to its core. Director Paul F. Gurgol has removed all the rubber buggy bumpers from this carriage ride into hell, and the result is a metal-on-metal screech of bleak sexuality in a backwards world, where survival demands isolation from others.
This is one show where it wouldn't hurt to arrive early, since the Kit Kat Club is bustling with activity as you take your seat at a small table: Leather boys abound, a transvestite is swinging overhead, and the stage is set for the emcee, played by John Paul Boukis, to launch into "Wilkommen." Dressed as a satyr, Boukis is completely mesmerizing, flashing his raccoon-lined eyes and wielding a rancid charm to pull you into his lair. Costumed variously in a leather codpiece, lacy pantalettes, or cross-strapped bondage gear, Boukis is a prancing, pouty, and perfectly depraved conduit for John Kander and Fred Ebb's inspired tunes.
The emcee's performances, supported by a splendidly sullen chorus line of junkies, whores, and perverts, serve as the framework for a curiously traditional Broadway musical formula: two couples teetering on the brink of relationships. Sally, a down-at-the-heels chanteuse, is drawn to the American wannabe novelist Cliff Bradshaw, even though Cliffie appears to swing both ways. Jodi Brinkman, her flickering cuteness almost buried under an avalanche of sex and drugs, makes a leaner and meaner Sally. Although speaking her songs a bit too often, Brinkman's lacerating take on the title song may forever expunge the pop track from memory. Rick Hamilton handles the often thankless role of Cliff well, floating in limbo both sexually and personally.
Cliff's landlady, Frau Schneider, and another tenant, Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz, create a few tender moments amid all the sturm und drang. Kathleen Huber and Jay Strauss sing with the burnished presence only age and experience can invoke, and their ultimate fate as a couple is the most poignant reminder of the evil spawned by fascist ideology.
This Cabaret gets even the small things right, from background vignettes (an S&M bottom getting paddled by his top) to a contortionist clown-mime (the amazingly limber Joseph Haladey III), who continually fuels the production's spooky aura. And even though the first-act pacing goes a little slack, the show's breathtaking ending will drive home -- better than 100 hours of historical Nazi footage ever could -- the stark terror that can appear at the flick of a switch.