The greatest art can – but certainly doesn’t simply – uplift us, inspire us, comfort us, and reflect the best of ourselves. Great art must also force us to think, confront pain, suffering, evil, and the worst of ourselves.

“Cabaret” runs at Augustana’s Brunner Theatre Center through Sunday, Nov. 20.

Two very different musical productions – both outstanding, monumental and heartfelt – I saw this week did that. “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at Circa ’21 (through Dec. 30) does much more of the former, a warm and fuzzy love letter to the holidays, and to love itself.

Cabaret” at Augustana College’s Brunner Theatre (through just Sunday, Nov. 20) is decidedly not a feel-good musical, but a feel-bad one, filled with intolerance, cruelty, regrets and dread, as well as some of the best drama, songs and dance created for the stage.

Augustana senior Camryn MacLean as Sally Bowles in the Liza Minnelli cast of “Cabaret.”

“Cabaret” takes place in 1929-30 Berlin, and in the seedy Kit Kat Club, the flamboyant Emcee implores the audience to leave their troubles outside. “In here, life is beautiful,” he promises, and that is true in fits and starts, though the world’s troubles come to overwhelm the dream of a liberated, carefree oasis.

I have long admired the work of Augustana’s Shelley Cooper, who is the blazingly talented director/choreographer of the new production. In the “Cabaret” program, she and dramaturg Synth Gonzalez persuasively argue for the show’s passionate relevance today.

Shelley Cooper is the director/choreographer of Augustana’s “Cabaret.”

Though set nearly a century ago and written in 1966 (book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb), Cooper says: “make no mistake; it is about the lives we are living right now.”

The issues “Cabaret” addresses in its characters are “things that we’re dealing with right now – racial profiling, inclusiveness, fear of the other,” the director wrote, noting the Nazis waged a genocidal campaign not only against Jews, but all kinds of people – “homosexuals, communists, the differently abled. The musical ends but the story is not over.”

Augie sophomore Julie Tarling opened as Sally Nov. 17, and will perform the role tonight, Nov. 19.

“This trajectory is quite scary considering the fact that we have conservative politicians right now trying to get rid of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, all programs that benefit disabled people in this country,” Gonzalez wrote in the program.

“We also have conservatives all over the country fighting for anti-trans bills, pastors preaching on the treason of homosexuality, and far right radical groups coming to LGBT events to harass those attending. And now we’re seeing a sudden spike in anti-Semitism, she says.

So the stunning, stark “Cabaret” is not just thrilling, full-throated entertainment – performed with tremendous dedication and enthusiasm by an amazing cast. It’s a profoundly teachable moment for all involved, including rapt audiences – so appropriate for a college setting.

Some of the Kit Kat Club dancers in “Cabaret.”

Cooper has also wisely opened the opportunity for key roles to be double cast – Sally, the Emcee, and Fraulein Schneider and Kost. The performance I saw Friday night featured first-class portrayals by Eli Bates as Emcee, Camryn MacLean as Sally, Jacqueline Isaacson as Schneider and Kaitlin Jacobson as Kost.

They will all return for the Sunday matinee. The Saturday night cast features Roger Pavey Jr., as Emcee, Julie Tarling as Sally, Mukupa Lungu as Schneider and Maggie Caliendo as Kost.

The highly sympathetic, compassionate male leads are Jack McCurdy as Cliff and AJ Perez as Schultz. The smooth, snakelike, chilling Nazi Ernst Ludwig is played by Titus Jilderda.

Eli Bates as the Emcee with “Cabaret” dancers.

Picking up a concept from the QC Prenzie Players (that “theater is not a passive experience”), Cooper implores us to join the cast in solidarity, and speak up against injustice today.

“Use your voice to fight against anti-Semitism, anti-homosexuality and other forms of bigotry,” she wrote in the program. “We must remember and honor the dead, the horrible genocide, but we absolutely must attend to the living with the same compassion.”

A central message of the show is uttered (in “If You Could See Her”) with hopeful longing by the Emcee, “Live and let live.”

Julie Tarling as cabaret performer Sally and Jack McCurdy as the American writer Cliff, who comes to Berlin to write a novel.

While the title song of “Cabaret” is traditionally thought of as a toe-tapping plea to have fun (“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play”), the bitterly disappointed MacLean as “the toast of Mayfair” nearly spits it out in disgust, after seeing her relationship fall apart.

Similarly, the great, playful Bates as Emcee calls out near the end of the show, with equally bitter irony, “Where are your troubles now? Forgotten!” Hardly.

Don’t get the impression the whole experience is a continuous downer, though (hardly!) — “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr,” “Two Ladies,” and “Money” are all delightful romps, and “Married” is a gentle, wistful, irresistible waltz (I shed a tear as Schneider and Schultz danced).

The Emcee’s brief reprise of the opening “Willkommen” (meaning “welcome”) close to the story close has an ugly aftertaste, as the club seeks to offer refreshing respite to the weary traveler and stranger, when the Nazis went on to do the opposite.

Jacqueline Isaacson and AJ Perez play the cute, endearing Schneider and Schultz, who bond over their love of pineapples.

It’s a shame that this polished, poised production was not included in the comprehensive, illuminating “Out of the Darkness” initiative this fall across the Quad Cities. The Holocaust-themed series (which ends Dec. 2) aims to attack divisiveness, racial tensions and intolerance with programs promoting dignity, diversity, equity, democratic values, human rights, and the power of the human spirit that are so badly needed today.  

“Cabaret” easily fits into that template, and shows how great art can dramatize and reflect the best and worst of the human spirit, calling us to our better angels.

I know there are very few seats remaining for the two performances left at Brunner, so I hope you’re one of the lucky few to catch Augie’s “Cabaret.” It is dark, uncomfortable, beautiful, haunting and unforgettable.

Treasured arts and entertainment not only help us forget, to escape, leave our troubles outside. They help us remember.