That classic musical snapshot of late Weimar Germany, Cabaret, opened last week as the first production of San Jose Stage Company‘s 2011-12 season. With music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, the play alternates between bawdy sequences of the seamy Kit Kat Klub and scenes set in the outside world, contrasting Berlin’s carefree nightlife with its ominous political climate on the eve of the rise of Hitler.

The Stage’s production is immersive, with an electric sign looming overhead and first-row seating resembling nightclub tables. You, the audience member, are a patron of the Kit Kat Klub, a sensation that you may find at once fun and disturbing. Taking after the revivals of the ‘90s, this version is somewhat darker than either the Broadway original or the 1972 film, with a more explicit, ambisexual attitude. This is most conspicuous in the iconic Emcee, a sort of lustful, sinister night creature, played outrageously by Jef Valentine.

Halsey Varady turns in a nuanced performance as Cabaret‘s other iconic character, Sally Bowles, who takes nothing seriously and believes that “life is a cabaret.” Varady’s rendition of the title song is a subtle mix of exuberance and uneasiness, suggesting that Sally doesn’t completely believe her own lines. Sally’s love interest, Clifford Bradshaw, isn’t the most interesting hero, but Brandon Mears fills this role nicely, projecting a naive bemusement at the decadence of Berlin and a gradual disillusionment. Judith Miller and Martin Rojas Dietrich, meanwhile, play a pair of aging lovers, and have some great songs together, including “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” probably the most touching song ever written about pineapples.

The real-world scenes in which all these characters interact are not as captivating as the Kit Kat Klub numbers, but they possess a warmth and poignancy that offsets the darkness of the sardonic nightclub scenes. Like Chicago, another of Kander and Ebb’s plays, the musical numbers use flamboyant spectacle to mock a society that is flashy on the surface but rotten at its core. While much energy and humor are packed into songs like “Willkommen,” and “Two Ladies,” there is a mean streak in them that grows more pronounced as the play progresses. Even so, the musical numbers are such a joy to behold that it’s easy to lose sight of the play’s message—which, really, seems to be the whole point. The Stage’s Cabaret invites you to “leave your troubles at the door” and then shocks you with the realization that life isn’t, in fact, a cabaret.

Runs through Oct. 23; $25-$50
The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose