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May 13, 1987|RAY LOYND

You have heard of actors making a quantum leap, but consider Arte Johnson. His best credential for taking on the smirking skull's-head of an emcee in "Cabaret" might seem that grinning Nazi who popped out of the bushes every week on TV's "Laugh-In."

But Johnson delivers a surprisingly insidious stage performance, sufficiently lewd and cunning to make you forget Joel Grey as "Cabaret" unfurls its decadent spree at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera.

It's been almost 20 years since a big-time production of "Cabaret" was staged locally. In an irony of scheduling, musical theater fans now have two major "Cabarets"--the Long Beach production at the Terrace Theater and, next month, a touring Joel Grey for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

"Cabaret" has to drip acid to succeed. And under the hard-edged direction of "Cabaret" veteran performer/director Charles Abbott, this production catches pre-Nazi Berlin in its last manic, edge-of-doom fling before Hitler.

The dancers in the Kit Kat Klub, under Dom Salinaro's evocative choreography, garishly grind to the tacky syncopation of an all-girl band. Flamboyant floral dresses, from costume designer Pamela Johnston-Gill, express a personal desperation. A hanging, trapezoidal mirror reflects a blurred nightmare. And the rouged Berlin regulars, particularly copper-haired, strong-voiced, leggy Belle Calaway as the frayed Sally Bowles, deliver the jaded goods.

Pointedly, of course, almost all the major characters, including such key supporting roles as S. Marc Jordan's Jewish merchant and Gay Hagen's landlady, are guilty of apathy. ("Governments come. Governments go," says the Jewish merchant.) The exception is the scrubbed innocent, the American writer, impressively played by Michael G. Hawkins.

Steven Smith's musical direction and Ken Holamon's revolving set are first-rate, but acoustics in the middle of the 3,054-seat house are not consistently bell-like in clarity of line and lyric.

The musical itself is brilliant. Creator Harold Prince was on the money, and John Kander and Fred Ebb's music always knows where it's going. So, largely, does this production, down to such light touches as the Kit Kat Klub telephone girl (the darkly wan Teresa Brown) and the Fruit Shop Dance, an engagement party that unspools with insouciance.

Performances are at 202 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through May 24. Tickets: $7.50-$22.50, (213) 436-3631.

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