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AISLE SAY Cincinnati


Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Sam Mendes
Co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall
Starring Joely Fisher and Jon Peterson
Aronoff Center: Procter & Gamble Hall
Through March 5, 2000
650 Walnut Street, Cincinnati / (513) 241-7469

Reviewed by Laura C. Kelley

Berlin, 1929 and 1930. Decadence celebrated by seedy glamour and a carefree spirit. "It's so tawdry and terrible and everybody's having such a wonderful time," says Cliff, the young American writer. But don't forget the desperation, deception, denial, depletion, and destruction. Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's production of "Cabaret" won't let you ignore the dark side, as revealed at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati. Restaged from its London production for the redesigned Kit Kat Klub in New York in 1998, and since moved on to a revamped Studio 54, the show continues to adapt as it plays to mainstream houses across the country. Even without the intimate nightclub setting, the haunting allure of "Cabaret" is inescapable.

This cabaret is too blatantly sexual to be labeled "suggestive" yet the characters aren't sleek enough to be sultry. The Kit Kat Girls and Boys saunter, stretch, and smoke on stage before the show begins, men in black vests with bare chests and arms (and tatoos), women barely wearing satin robes over torn stockings and ragged undergarments. They nonchalantly check out the audience and ignore it, too. When the audience pays attention, it assumes a voyeuristic role. Soon, the Emcee makes everyone part of this raunchy, dim, yet flashy world. Played by Jon Peterson, the Emcee takes deliberate delight in being naughty in public. Amidst Marshall's dynamic choreography is a stylized, lustful (and repetitive) visual vocabulary: grabbing crotches, thrusting pelvises, banging hips, entwining legs, and spanking butts. The effect is more desperate and detached than titillating.

Peterson often lurks around the edges of the scene, a dangerous, smirking presence that becomes part of the action but also seems to control much of it. He is one of the most haunting elements of the production. In William Ivey Long's now familiar costume, this Emcee is a deranged and dangerous clown. His powder-white face and sneering red lips are fringed by straggly hair. His black tights and white suspenders and straps are sometimes covered by a black leather trenchcoat. His cabaret funhouse scares and amuses as it distorts reality.

The grit doesn't dampen the traditional American musical spirit in "Cabaret". The production captures the musical punch, the exhilarating choreography, and the romantic plotlines. John Kander and Fred Ebb's big numbers offer razzle-dazzle thrill, thanks to a hot orchestra and vibrant singing, under music director/coordinator Keith Thompson. The small numbers become genuine, intimate pieces that still maintain the drive. Joely Fisher's Sally Bowles, tenacious yet vulnerable, occasionally lets down her guard. The sincere and endearing ballad "Maybe This Time" grows from a sad dream to an energized hope, as she talks herself into believing that her love for Cliff will last, maybe. The occasional raspy edge to Fisher's voice as she belts doesn't weaken her solid performance.

In an upbeat, friendly entr'acte, the band jams within the gold, lit frame that hangs crookedly in front of their second-story "pit." In black wigs, berets, and slips, the Kit Kat Girls slink down iron spiral staircases to form a kickline with the Emcee, who is nearly disguised in drag but with telling tatoos. Their dance turns to a goosestep all too esaily. That's how the transformations happen in this "Cabaret". It's a short slide from the precarious yet oblivious poverty of nightclub life to the uncompromising unity of the Nazis. So much for a fun evening at the cabaret, as reality intrudes. The first act's enthusiastic spirit and eagerness to please gradually, appropriately drain away in the second half. Everything appears to become smaller, blacker, more beat-up, and emptier.

The genuine love between the self-sufficient Fraulein Schneider (Alma Cuervo) and the kind widower Herr Schultz (Hal Robinson) can't survive Hitler's threats. The tender yearning in their rendition of "Married" makes their separation even sadder. Meanwhile, the growing love between the naive American writer (Clifford Bradshaw, played by Jay Goede) and Sally, the racy chanteuse, can't withstand poverty and politics. By the time a weak Sally tells a battered Cliff that she's had an abortion, they are alone on a quiet stage. No orchestra. No jeering and enticing emcee. Just two struggling people facing obstacles. Exit the funhouse.

Cincinnati audiences still haven't shaken their conservative reputation. While many giggled at the bisexual appetite of the Emcee, a murmur rippled through the hall when Cliff kissed Bobby, a former lover. Without the mask of comedy, the sight was too much for some of the audience to swallow. Theatre teaches.

Even in such a staid town, "Cabaret" earned an ovation. The production succeeds because of the perfect match among its atmosphere, plot, and music, enhanced by outstanding performances. It's a theatrical delight to experience the moody lighting (by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari), tawdry costumes, efficient set (by Robert Brill), suggestive music, and triple-threat cast. Together, they exhale the dank, stale, smoky breath of the Kit Kat Klub on an audience in a mainstream house. The show is refreshing, in a retro way: not quite the same as the original, being designed in today's world and seen through contemporary eyes, yet remaining part of a different time. Wilkommen und danke.

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