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O.C. THEATER | Stage Review

In Glaring Light, 'Cabaret's' Secrets Exposed

August 10, 2000|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Cabaret" is one of those shows that never goes away for long. Whether at the local community theater or on Broadway, someone always seems to be having a go at this beautiful, troubling tale of people trying to move ahead with their lives, even as evil threatens on the horizon.

In the hands of each new director, and each new cast, "Cabaret" reveals a bit more of itself, as in its current run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, where the national tour of Sam Mendes' brilliant 1998 Broadway staging runs through Sunday.

Pushing the show's concept to an artful extreme, Mendes presents the seedy cabaret of the show's title as a metaphor for Germany in 1929 and into the early '30s.

Beset by a war loss, crushing money woes and growing national discontent, the denizens of a Berlin nightclub lose themselves in fleeting moments of ecstasy. But with Hitler and the Nazis on the rise, the best they can do is enjoy the party while it lasts.

It's interesting to revisit this production now that Mendes has delivered his Oscar-winning film "American Beauty," which presents a similarly chilling view of a very different party at the end of the world: the affluent turn of the millennium in suburban America.

And it's rewarding to take a look at this company of "Cabaret," even if you caught the show's Los Angeles stop last spring, because new performers make the characters come to life in intriguingly different ways.

The biggest difference, of course, is that the production has had to jettison one of its primary constructs.

On Broadway and in Los Angeles, performance spaces were reconfigured so that at least some viewers could be seated at cabaret tables, becoming part of the story. That's not possible for short stops such as this one, so we're left with just the action on stage. And though that's quite enough, it is, inescapably, less than earlier audiences experienced.

Whereas the indelible movie version of "Cabaret," directed by Bob Fosse, shifted the story's emphasis largely onto the relationship between a sexy, larger-than-life nightclub performer and the young writer who falls under her spell, this stage version divides the focus--as originally presented in the Joe Masteroff-John Kander-Fred Ebb musical--between that relationship and one between an aging lady boarding-house operator and the produce merchant who woos her.

Turning back further, Mendes' staging returns to the image of nightclub performer Sally Bowles presented in Christopher Isherwood's source material, "The Berlin Stories." That Sally is by no means the sleek entertainer embodied by Liza Minnelli, but a marginally talented lass who gets by largely due to her unusual appearance and personal charisma.

Kate Shindle doesn't take the portrayal to quite that extreme, yet she lets Sally's frayed edges show in touching ways. Shindle, perhaps best known as Miss America 1998, is a strikingly tall woman, an attribute she adapts to Sally by making the transplanted British performer a zesty, grab-life-by-the-lapels kind of gal.

Yet as her relationship with the American writer, Cliff, begins to unravel amid Germany's growing turmoil, Shindle gradually reveals the scared, attention-starved little girl hiding behind the false bravado.

Jay Goede, as Cliff, is also built big. He has a college football player's physique, and a manly handsomeness to match. This sets up he-man expectations that Goede gently plays against--he presents the writer as an earnest young guy who's a bit too sensitive, a bit too priggish and much too scared of his emerging homosexuality.

As the elderly couple who provide a counterpoint to Sally and Cliff's juvenile playacting at love, Alma Cuervo and Hal Robinson are heartbreaking. Cuervo, especially, conveys how sweetly fulfilling this late-in-life romance has been, yet how impossible it has become, given that her tender, gallant suitor is Jewish and she is not.

As the ever-present cabaret emcee, Jon Peterson is cut from the same cloth as the original Joel Grey and original Mendes player Alan Cumming. Slight yet sinewy, Peterson projects a naughty, sassy, frankly gay sense of humor. Coyly coming on to the front rows of the audience and mocking shock at his randy behavior, he enthralls even as he scandalizes.

In the increasingly dark, disturbing cabaret acts that Peterson's emcee leads, he satirizes and tries to laugh off Hitler's growing influence. Yet there is no escape. When Mendes' staging reaches its terrifying final evocation of the Nazis' death chambers, we see that the emcee, like so many others, has been doomed all along.

In this staging, which Mendes created with co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall, the action never really leaves the cabaret. Even in scenes set elsewhere, the emcee emerges to coax the action along, and stage props or mirror balls drop in to make us feel that we're still in the nightclub.

Thus, we cannot escape the growing horror of Hitler's Germany. Will we, as witnesses, live to teach our descendants to be ever vigilant against such evil? Or will we fall victim to its murderous, white-hot intensity?

That chilling question makes "Cabaret" a show that always rewards, no matter how many times you see it.

BE THERE

* "Cabaret," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Today-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 6 p.m. Ends Sunday. $28.50-$62.50. (714) 740-7878 or (213) 365-3500. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Kate Shindle: Sally Bowles

Jon Peterson: Emcee

Jay Goede: Clifford Bradshaw

Hal Robinson: Herr Schultz

Alma Cuervo: Fraulein Schneider

Drew McVety: Ernst

Lenora Nemetz: Fraulein Kost

Corey Brill: Max

Gary Bowman, Thomas Cannizzaro, Michael Curry, Joshua Judge, Shana Mahoney, Jessica Perrizo, Stacey Sipowicz, Susan Taylor, Nicole Van Giesen Company

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