In the cabaret "Desire," each set of songs represents something people want: sustenance, understanding, pleasure, etc. The theme is more cohesive in the abstract than in practice, but that doesn't keep the cast of five women from turning in an enjoyable performance in this 14-song revue.
Funny woman Lauri Johnson opened the free 45-minute show with her original song, "I'm Hungry." She worked the room--a storefront on the north end of El Portal Theatre--and warmed up the late-night audience for the upbeat songs to follow.
First, Karen Reed, Carol Keis and Bobbi Stamm revisit the Andrews Sisters with "Billy-a-Dick." And then, with a flash of Velcro, they're in '50s-style outfits for "When He Walked Me Home," with soloist Summer Litwin.
The transition from da-do-run-run-run glee to forlorn depression threw Stamm off in her solo number, "You Don't Know Me." Her emotion felt forced and the result merely adequate.
Director David Mingrino has, however, nicely balanced ballads and upbeat tunes, familiar songs with new or lesser-known ones. After "You Don't Know Me," comes the revenge block: Cole Porter's darkly comic "Miss Otis Regrets" and the intellectual woman's nightmare, "Crossword Puzzle." Later, after Johnson turns maudlin for John Prine's "Hello in There"--about the desperate loneliness of the aged--any lumps are cleared from throats by a scantily clad rendition of "Big Spender."
Unfortunately, smack in the middle of the program comes "Retribution," which leaves the audience wondering what it did to deserve this three-song segment. The performances are highly stylized but the substance feels so wrong.
Doing Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" as a cabaret number is simply a bad idea. Four adult women--tears painted on their cheeks--marching in place singing, "We don't need no education," saps the song of its rebellious edge. It's followed by "Mother," another Roger Waters song from "The Wall." The all-female cast, however, undermines the deeply Oedipal lyrics. And "From a Distance," by songwriter Julie Gold, is a Cold War remnant that is more dated than moving.
But just when you think you've started down an irreversible slide, "Desire" snaps back with its best number. "Repent," by Broadway legends Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, combines wit and raciness, all in the name of redemption. Keis is energetic and hilarious as she incites everyone to abandon all dirty deeds.
"Desire" ends with "You Can't Always Get What You Want," with the lyrics altered to work in the other song titles. Hokey? A little. So, you may not be able to get everything you want from "Desire." It still reminds us that some good things, if not the very best, are free.
"Desire," Actors Alley Cabaret at El Portal, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Free. Donations accepted. Fri.-Sat., 10:15 p.m. Ends March 14. (818) 508-4200. Running time: 45 minutes.