It is 1920s Berlin, and Hitler's thunderclouds are brewing on the horizon. It will be a devastating storm, one that will not only take millions of Jewish lives but leave countless others stricken with crippling guilt over an enabling complacency born of fear.

It is 1920s Berlin, and Hitler's thunderclouds are brewing on the horizon. It will be a devastating storm, one that will not only take millions of Jewish lives but leave countless others stricken with crippling guilt over an enabling complacency born of fear.

But tonight we are at the Kit Kat Club, where Camelot Theatre invites us to "leave your troubles behind" in "Cabaret," the Broadway musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb that opened Friday in Talent.

Unlike some productions of "Cabaret" that wallow in the depravity of Berlin (the 1972 movie is one), Artistic Director Livia Genise's interpretation is playful and human at the outset. Her Kit Kat Kittens drape the stage with a sexiness that punctuates but doesn't overwhelm, and Audrey Flint's lively choreography is peppered with innuendo. We fall under the spell of Berlin's wild abandon, and we fall in love with characters we wouldn't otherwise associate with in real life.

It is this treatment of the first act that makes the second so powerful. As we watch in horror Hitler's grip tighten on the German people, we don't believe the inhabitants of "Cabaret" deserve what's surely coming to them.

We understand how life's curveballs have handicapped their courage, and we wonder what we would do in their shoes.

Musical Director Mark Reppert's two renditions of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," a German anthem sung in the first act as a reverent hymn, in the second act as a chilling demand, illustrates the turnabout of the German people that will lead to unspeakable atrocities.

Strongest among the 20-member cast is Jessica Price as Sally Bowles. When we first meet Sally, it the merest of introductions in "Willkommen." But we can't take our eyes off her, despite Kittens dancing and cartwheeling about her. This stage is all hers, and, thank God, she never lets it go.

Her voice is a powerhouse, her acting chops honed with precision. She grabs "Don't Tell Mama" by its lapels and shakes it till every note, every gesture does her bidding. Her Sally won't be hemmed in, even by her first real love. But her freedom comes at a devastating price, and during "Cabaret," her final number, we know when she sings "What good is sitting alone in your room?" she's trying to convince herself, not the audience. And when she gets to the line "I made up my mind back in Chelsea/When I go, I'm going like Elsie," she means it.

Mark Barsekian as the Emcee commands the stage with a presence that's both playful and confident. He's the satirist of all things sexual and political, and you get the feeling he alone fully understands what's at stake when living free of society's shackles.

In the first act, everyone's telling the American writer with gusto, "Welcome to Berlin!" When the Emcee says it, the words are tinged with a darkness that foreshadows what is to come.

Barsekian's mesmerizing hold on the audience compensates for what he lacks vocally, which is a range broad enough to accommodate some of the songs. But when he can, he uses his breaks into falsetto with comedic effect.

The most endearing moments come during the courtship between Fraulein Schneider, the owner of a boarding house, and Herr Schultz, a Jew who runs the finest fruit stand in Germany, thanks to the masterful performances of Gwen Overland and Paul R. Jones. The two aging lovers beam in each other's company, flirt with as much abandon as societal mores will allow, relish whatever small delights they can bring to one another (you'll never look at a pineapple the same again).

J.R. Storment plays the American writer Clifford Bradshaw, who provides the portal of normalcy (if there is such a thing in Berlin) through which we view the rest of the characters. Storment doesn't have much to work with in the first act as the observer, but by the second, as he tries to wrest a flailing Sally into family life, he is stubborn and conflicted, and we feel how deeply his calm demeanor has been punctured by love.

Through the flawed but very human characters in "Cabaret," we stare full on at the question life demands of us when evil threatens to overcome good. What will you do? Sit idly by and save your skin, or stand up for what's important and risk both yourself and the ones you love?

Cathy Noah is city editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 776-4473 or e-mail cnoah@mailtribune.com.