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'Cabaret' Takes Walk on the Wild Side of Berlin

Theater review: A production that's more about the city and era than any of its parts works fine with an especially funny, evil MC.

March 07, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Christopher Isherwood, who wrote the stories on which "Cabaret" is based, didn't care much for the film version. The real Sally Bowles, he told an interviewer, had absolutely no talent, but when Liza Minnelli put her fishnet-stockinged leg up on that chair, you knew she was a superstar.

He would have been much more comfortable with Adriana Sanchez, who is playing Sally in Mario Lescot's restaging (and rethinking) of the show at the Theatre District. Sanchez is not untalented, but there is a reticence in her performance, the tiniest suggestion that she is retreating from the role.

Unfortunately, this also keeps her from the sheer joie de vivre in Sally's personality, and the joy that she became for Isherwood and for audiences. Indeed, most of the time, Sanchez doesn't look as though she's having a very good time. And neither does P.J. Agnew, as Cliff Bradshaw, the Isherwood figure.

These two should be having a ball in the wild Berlin that existed before the Nazis came to power, but they look more out of Hemingway than out of Isherwood.

They are, however, the only odd notes in Lescot's staging--and they look like they might be part of his pattern. Lescot's concept is more about Berlin itself than about any of its parts, and it works fine. He is using an author rewrite (done after the release of the film, according to the theater) that is a much more solid piece of drama than than the original fuzzy Broadway script, and closer to Isherwood's original "Berlin Stories."

In this version, Cliff admits his homosexuality, which doesn't keep him at all from falling puppy-like in love with Sally.

The central figure here, more so than in other versions, is the Master of Ceremonies, who has been given a couple of new twists and some fresh humor laced with ultimate evil by Christopher Spencer.

*

Spencer almost overpowers the production with his strong, vibrant singing voice, and the evening is liveliest when he is on stage. He is a sort of mini-Erich von Stroheim, and his obvious relish of the repulsive underbelly of the Nazis makes an intense statement about how Germany was so easily fooled back then.

Others in the company stand out for the honesty and veracity of their performances, and for their artful blending into a seamless whole. Karen Mangano is touching as a rather withdrawn Fraulein Schneider. Her gentle renditions of "So What," "It Couldn't Please Me More" and "What Would You Do?" couldn't be more on target.

*

Alice Ensor is Fraulein Kost, the hooker who rents a room from the reluctant Schneider and brings sailors home. Ensor is funny and warm. John Bowerman as Ernst Ludwig, the Nazi who tries to coerce Cliff into helping make secret deliveries, has an interesting surface charm that belies the odious core that finally reveals itself.

Lescot is a director who always finds the unusual in the most usual of scripts, and his handling of "Cabaret" is no exception. His is an approach that Isherwood himself might have liked, because it finds its strengths in the decay of Berlin in 1931, while its characters carelessly and unknowingly live out their own little dramas.

* "Cabaret," Theatre District, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sunday and March 23, 7 p.m.; March 16, 2 p.m. Ends March 29. $20. (714) 435-4043. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"Cabaret,"

Christopher Spencer: Master of Ceremonies

P.J. Agnew: Clifford Bradshaw

Adriana Sanchez: Sally Bowles

Karen Mangano: Fraulein Schneider

Alice Ensor: Fraulein Kost

John Bowerman: Ernst Ludwig

A Theatre District production of a musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, based on "Berlin Stories" by Christopher Isherwood. Directed by Mario Lescot. Scenic design: Two Blue Chairs Inc. Lighting design: David Jacobi. Sound design: Ron Castro. Costume design: Joan Lescot. Stage manager: Sharon Evans.

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