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NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont.– In the Festival Theatre, the Shaw Festival’s largest venue, two jet-black metal staircases rise up from the center of the stage like a jagged strand of damaged DNA. Together, they form a rickety spiral that reaches precariously toward the ceiling and seems moments away from collapse.

Out of this horrifying piece of obsidian machinery emerge the used-up, bruised-up dancers of Berlin’s seedy Kit Kat Klub, circa 1930, punctured and pockmarked like pieces of rotting fruit. They trot out in a series of jerking mechanical motions like the dreary workers in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” as if they’re props being operated by some backstage crank.

“So, life is disappointing?” the dreaded Emcee of Kander and Ebb’s masterpiece musical “Cabaret” asks as the rusty orchestra squeaks out the opening tune and the entire metal contraption begins to rotate. “Here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful.”

That all depends on your definition of beauty. Peter Hinton’s unsparing and visually seductive production of this heavy-hitting fan favorite confounds our expectations about one of the most familiar musicals in the canon. Here, it’s the free-spirited denizens of the seedier side of Weimar Berlin who are depicted as mechanized and the Nazis who take on a seductive, free-flowing air.

With the possible exception of Hinton’s jaw-dropping production of “Lady Windemere’s Fan” last season on the same stage, this is the most visually astonishing a production as I’ve seen at the festival since 2007. Hinton has a cinematographer’s eye, an art historian’s understanding of visual symbolism and a veteran director’s head for staging.

Theatergoers who have seen “Cabaret” countless times may dismiss Hinton’s approach as heavy-handed or overreaching. But there is no denying the potency of his carefully selected symbols, or the devastating emotional effect of a production that dares to animate the seductive hold Nazism had over a country in the midst of economic misery. Hinton and his creative team, including set designer Michael Gianfrancesco, choreographer Denise Clarke, musical director Paul Sportelli and costume designer Judith Bowden, have made an old chestnut feel as fresh as it must have seemed the day it opened on Broadway in 1966, and much more dangerous.

It’s no knock against the production’s gifted cast to say that not a single performer stands out. More than most other musicals, the performances in Hinton’s “Cabaret” seem to have been conceived of as a design element, just one of many ingredients in the overall production rather than its raison d’etre. (See: Dan Shanahan’s Torn Space Theater in Buffalo.)

Juan Chioran is excellent as the vampiric Emcee, delivering his lines with a painfully manufactured enthusiasm. The phenomenally talented Deborah Hay, probably not most directors’ first choice for Kit Kat Klub star Sally Bowles, sinks her teeth into the role with fine results. And props do not come any more lifelike in this production than Gray Powell, who plays the musical’s aw-shucks caricature of a wide-eyed American with a kind of wooden charm.

Fine performances also come from Corrine Koslo as Fraulein Schneider and Benedict Campbell as Herr Schultz.

But more than anything, it’s Hinton’s freighted stage pictures that take top billing.

In one scene that embodies the push and pull of humor and desperation that is at the heart of this production and this musical, the Kit Kat Klub dancers each grab a circular piece of fabric bearing a number from zero to 10. When they lay them down on the circular stage, it becomes a rotary phone. This is not just a swiftly executed visual gimmick, but a foreshadowing of the rise of the Third Reich, during which many of the Kit Kat Klub’s customers and staff will be assigned numbers of their own.

Likewise, in one scene, the actors wear comically enormous reflective dunce caps on their heads, at once acting out the splintering apart of the Weimar Republic’s creaky machinery and nodding toward latent forms of American nationalism – Kit Kat Klub meets Ku Klux Klan. Hinton’s American critique becomes even more obvious toward the end, as Bradshaw acts out a kind of Nazi pantomime in the nightmarishly smooth choreographic style invented by Clarke.

Similarly spellbinding moments and images abound throughout the production, each loaded with multiple meanings. In Hinton’s production of “Cabaret,” as in the dying days of Weimar Germany, life is of course anything but beautiful. Though we know the terrible ending of this story, Hinton makes it impossible to look away.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com