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THEATER REVIEWS : German Cabaret, American Attitude : 'Cabaret Verboten' has been sanitized and defused. 'Frauleins in Underwear,' though not sinister either, is more ribald.

August 10, 1993|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC EMERITUS

It's unusual for two shows to show up in town dealing with between-the-wars German cabaret. The first, "Frauleins in Underwear," at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, is a brand-new show; the second, "Cabaret Verboten" at Theatre Geo, is an expansion of an older one.

If one had not seen the earlier, short version of "Verboten" at the Itchey Foot Ristorante in April, 1991, dripping in decadence and menace, it might have been more difficult to identify what's missing in this new go-around. Call it the George Grosz factor. That unhealthy, sinister, satirical something is AWOL. Absent. Gone.

The original "Verboten" had been spawned by translator-adapter-mastermind Jeremy Lawrence and a small band of talented accomplices (including director Steven Albrezzi) as a taunting adjunct to the "Degenerate Art" exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art.

It reeked of degeneracy, from its costumes (odd, militant rags) to its insalubrious lighting. Now fattened to twice its original size, this re-creation of Germany's '20s and '30s cabaret scene has been sanitized, prettified and defused.

Despite featuring the biting work of Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Bertolt Brecht, Friedrich Hollaender, Mischa Spoliansky and Marcellus Schiffer, among others, it is laid-back, vaudevillian and Americanized. Lawrence himself directs this time, so there's no passing the buck. The show is shapeless, the costumes (Thomas G. Marquez) indifferent, and Jim Call's bright lighting rarely uses the Victorian footlights at his disposal.

*

Why? Why? Why? It isn't just that more is not more, but that the show's identity is completely altered, starting with Neal Lerner's conferencier (read emcee). Lerner is a friendly, sweet-natured American boy who can shrug off the occasional failure to strike the right note. He is not sinister.

Artur Cybulski does achieve proper anguish now and then, but talented comedian Cindy Benson's Trudy is mostly plain funny, and Louiza Mosendz, with an accent more Russian than German, brings a certain "Blue Angel" quality to some of the songs. As a group, though, they rarely coalesce.

Part of the problem is Harriet Leider, the only holdover from the original cast. As that triple-chinned wonder, Shahtsie, she haunted the Itchey Foot show. Here, she's all over the place. Turning "Cabaret Verboten" into the Harriet Leider show is of no help to either. A little Leider in the shadows was titillating; a lot of Leider under bright lights is repetitious and kitschy.

Only in the second half does Lawrence recapture some of the "Verboten's" original boldness and decadence, especially in the numbers that were a hit the first time ("The Jews Are All to Blame" being the most notable), which should tell him something. Even his musicians, once cleverly dubbed Sturm and Drang, are now simply listed by name: Marjorie Poe, piano; John Harvey, drums. Where is the bite of yesteryear?

"Frauleins in Underwear" at the Odyssey covers the same territory as "Verboten" and even shares a couple of the same songs (Brecht and Eisler's searing "Oh, Fallada" and the amusing "Best Friends" by Spoliansky and Schiffer). But "Frauleins" makes more of an attempt to aim for the grossness (and Groszness) of the context and, being a shorter, more tightly directed collection of songs without patter, it is, if not sinister either, a more fresh and ribald experience.

But, like "Verboten," it is not compact enough--neither of these shows should have an intermission--and too often substitutes comedy for satire. This company also feels disconcertingly American, until the final chorus, which it delivers in German--a persuasive touch that would enhance both shows if more liberally used.

*

The group is versatile and diversified and twice as large as "Verboten's," with Stacey Shaffer best at capturing the period and its fondness for the torchy Dietrich style.

Beyond Shaffer, there is busty Karon Kearney, leggy Tia Nicole Tucker, stylish Valerie Spencer, playful Susan Kohler and nosy Laura Bogard (hilarious in "When Willy Calls Me Doll," an item of pure knockabout farce).

Of the men, Frank Kopyc, with his stocky build and close-cropped hair, best fulfills the stereotypical notion of Teutonic.

But Michael Halpin has the dark, seductive good looks of a MacHeath, Christopher Michaels is an innocent sailor and Alan Abelew movingly portrays a nebbishy Jew, eventually branded with the Star of David.

"Frauleins," like "Verboten," makes a few passes at the mounting pressures of Nazism in interregnum Germany, but they are not enough and not menacing enough.

The element of gloom and terror that even "The Threepenny Opera" knows how to achieve is simply missing. Where are the teeth? Where is the Zeitgeist ?

But if "Frauleins" misses its mark by accident (and not by much), there is far less of an explanation for the wrong turns taken in "Verboten." It has the same creator behind it. It had it made. It "improved" itself into mush. Or rather mishmush.

It's an old lesson: If you got it right the first time, don't fix it.

* "Cabaret Verboten," Theatre Geo, 1229 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 18. $18; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

* "Frauleins in Underwear," Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., except Sept. 5 and 19 at 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 19. $17.50-$21.50; (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours.

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