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Marin Independent Journal, 12-12-2005


Delightful debauchery at the Kit Kat Club in 'Cabaret'

-- by Charles Brousse


When Berkeley's Shotgun Players announced they would be scheduling "Cabaret" to close out their 2005 season, the news undoubtedly raised some eyebrows. This interesting little outside-the-mainstream theater group isn't noted for producing musicals. On the contrary, I can't remember having seen one since I began covering them a half dozen years ago.

Beyond the track record deficit, there are other problems. Musicals are expensive. They involve costly licensing fees, live musicians who (unlike actors) aren't willing to work for love of the art, large casts (17 in the case of "Cabaret"), an expanded creative team, and complex scenic effects. With limited seating capacity, how can you meet the budget?

And if, like Shotgun, you save money by not employing Equity talent, where do you find non-union performers capable of fulfilling audience expectations-especially when, as with "Cabaret," previous professional productions and a well-known film version have set such a high standard?

These were among the questions in my mind as I sat in Shotgun's church pew seats, waiting for the lights to dim. Suddenly, the on-stage band struck up the familiar chords of "Willcommen" as a saturnine Emcee (Clive Worsley) invited us to join him in 1920s Berlin's Kit Kat Club. Two and a half hours later, I found myself adding my hands to the enthusiastic applause.

Not that Shotgun's production is problem-free. But it also has an infectious vitality that emanates from the mostly young cast, especially from a radiant Kimberly Dooley in the central role of Sally Bowles. Even more, it proves once again how utterly compelling and perennially relevant a work of musical theater "Cabaret" actually is.

Among the many great shows that have ruled Broadway over the past 60 years, only "Evita" comes anywhere near it in political depth. In contrast with "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Sound of Music, " where political turmoil is a subsidiary theme, "Cabaret" takes us directly into the heart of a Weimar Germany that is tottering on the edge of an abyss. Hitler's shadow is everywhere, haunting Berlin's never-ending partying, insinuating itself into personal and business relationships as it promotes the Nazi's vision of Aryan racial superiority.

Content isn't the only area in which "Cabaret" is unique. The creative team of Joe Masteroff (whose book is based on Christopher Isherwood's revealing portrait of pre-Nazi Berlin life, "I Am a Camera"), John Kander and Fred Ebb (music, lyrics) gave it a dark satirical edge that has more in common with Brecht/Weill's "Three Penny Opera" than anything by Rodgers and Hammerstein. For once, Broadway didn't command a happy ending.

Shotgun's production, directed by Russell Blackwood, captures this offbeat style beautifully, especially in its refusal to sanitize the sexual atmosphere. The Kit Kat girls strut their stuff in varying stages of undress, teasing as they reach for a customer's wallet. Modesty is not an issue here, as it has been in other versions I've seen, nor is there any disguising the story's strong homosexual overtones.

At the same time, however, where a more lyrical tone is called for - as in some of the scenes between the bisexual young American writer Cliff Bradshaw (sensitively played by Cassidy Brown) and Dooley's Sally, the perky but cynical showgirl he comes to love - Blackwood allows the encounters to develop slowly as each explores unfamiliar emotions.

Mary Gibboney generates similar empathy for the quandary of Fraulein Schneider, the spinster landlady of the house where Clifford has taken lodgings. Should she follow her heart by accepting a marriage proposal tendered by her kindly Jewish boarder, Herr Schultz (Joe Roebuck), or should she listen to the warnings of Ernst, the Nazi organizer (a solid performance by Danny Weber) about the repercussions of such a match?

For the most part, musically and dramatically Shotgun's "Cabaret" is right on target. Where it stumbles a bit is in Robert Ted Anderson's lighting, which would benefit greatly from a narrower focus during solo numbers, and the casting of Worsely as the Emcee, a role famously portrayed by Joel Grey in both the New York and film versions. Comparisons are unfair, of course, but I don't think it's improper to observe that while Worsely has incorporated much of Grey's physical style into his performance, he lacks the vocal projection (despite being miked) and presence to pull off this difficult role.

Similarly, the Kit Kat girls, for all their gyrations and breast baring, could have used a few lessons about how young European women of that era might have conjured up erotic fantasies for the paying customers. More dramatic makeup might help. More subtlety and less of the bouncy all-American girl athleticism that makes sex seem like a game of volleyball.

Quibbles aside, as the New York Times' Walter Kerr wrote of the show's 1966 debut, "Cabaret is a stunning musical." True then, true now.

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