The seedy glamour of the Kit Kat Klub with its bawdy emcee in “Cabaret” provide an unsettling but fitting backdrop to the story of the hard-living entertainer Sally Bowles in Weimar Germany.
But it may be the secondary storyline in the musical — the storyline featuring the show’s only Jewish character — that more aptly depicts the contradictions implicit in a society flourishing intellectually and artistically against the impending rise of the Nazis.
Running at the Benedum Center from Feb. 2 to Feb. 7, Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Cabaret,” choreographed and co-directed by Pittsburgh native Rob Marshall along with Sam Mendes, is not the same show that longtime theater-goers remember from the Broadway production that opened in 1966, for which Joel Grey won a Tony Award as the tuxedo-clad emcee. The music is the same, but the staging and choreography, and particularly the character of the emcee, make the show decidedly edgier, according to actor Mark Nelson, who plays Herr Schultz in the touring production that had its first stop in Providence, R.I., last week before heading to Pittsburgh.
“It’s not a smiling, family-approved musical,” Nelson said. “You know from the beginning that you are going into a dark tunnel. It’s incredibly sexy and fun, but there’s a desperation under it, and you sense the darkness that’s ahead.”
The big question posed by the show, said Nelson, is, “How did Germany allow the Nazis to happen?”
The character of Schultz, an elderly Jewish fruit vendor who is courting the owner of his boardinghouse, Fraulein Schneider, embodies that question, Nelson said.
“This was 1929, at the very beginning of the rise of Hitler,” Nelson explained. “Jews were well integrated into German society. For people in this boardinghouse, it is unthinkable to imagine what will happen just four years later. The Nazi movement was just a crazy fringe movement in the minds of the sophisticated Germans.”
Even Schultz, as a Jew, cannot imagine the possibility.
“Schultz insists that it will pass and that we must go on living our lives, and loving,” Nelson said. “He’s a believer in people and a believer in love.”
The relationship between Schultz and Schneider provides a moving contrast to the relationship between Bowles and her love interest, Cliff, Nelson said.
“It’s the great reversal of the show,” he continued. “It’s the old people who are will to take a chance and are willing to reach out, and the younger people who are jaded and who take sex lightly. The older people take it as a gift.”
The “old-world courtliness” of Schultz and Schneider almost seems ironic, he said, juxtaposed to the “very decadent and raunchy” backdrop of the Kit Kat Klub.
Nelson, who recently acted off-Broadway in the stage adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel “My Name is Asher Lev,” connects deeply with the role of Schultz, even though his own Jewish roots were in Lithuania and Russia rather than Germany.
“I think anyone who is Jewish has a curiosity about that time and an obligation to know about it,” he said. “The character of Schultz has a Jewish soul. He is generous and big-hearted.”
One of the moments in the show that Nelson finds particularly poignant is when Schneider tells Schultz that she is afraid that the Nazis are judging her because she is engaged to a Jew.
“He tells her, ‘It’s not always a good thing to settle for the lowest apple on the tree; climb up a little,’” Nelson said. “Schultz is a stand-in for the 6 million and the lives they might have had, not in their suffering, but in this alternative universe in having loving and useful lives.”
Nelson, who has “rarely done musicals,” said he finds taking on the role of Schultz “incredibly exhilarating.”
While his voice has adjusted to meet the rigors of the musical aspect of the show, it is not the singing that is the most challenging part of the role, he said.
“The hardest part of the role is forgetting about the Holocaust and going into the scenes not knowing what was going to happen,” he said.
“Cabaret” is part of the 2015-16 PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. Tickets can be purchased at the Theater Square Box Office, 655 Penn Ave., and online at TrustArts.org/Broadway.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.