- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

What good is sitting alone in your room? For starters, you won’t have to sit through Arena Stage’s lugubrious production of “Cabaret,” which takes an already politically charged musical and lards it over with contemporary references to anti-Semitism, homophobia, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the erosion of American civil liberties after September 11.

That’s a lot of weight for any show to carry, and the dark dazzle of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1966 musical set in a debauched nightclub in pre-World War II Berlin nearly collapses from the strain.

Much of the sophistication is lost, and the wicked decadence of the piece — based on Christopher Isherwood’s biographical “Berlin Stories” — not only evaporates, but all of a sudden seems squalid in the context of director Molly Smith’s vision of “Cabaret” as a morality play and battleground for human rights.

That the production, although often visually sumptuous, is overblown and grandiose makes the whole experience especially incongruous. One minute it’s “We Shall Overcome” and images of Jews being marched off to concentration camps, and the next, a bunch of cross-dressing chanteuses are slapping their garters and belting out “Mein Herr.”

After awhile, you pity the entertainers and audiences at the Kit-Kat Club, a place where the Master of Ceremonies (Brad Oscar) boasts “Everyone is beautiful; even the orchestra is beautiful.”

Of course, with the heady bohemianism of the Weimar Republic on the verge of collapse, the Kit-Kat singers and dancers are looking a mite worn and tattered, but the yearning for escape and wisps of glitter is palpable.

The cabaret’s star, Sally Bowles (Meg Gillentine), still holds a strung-out allure that is irresistible to men, even sexually confused types like Clifford Bradshaw (Glenn Seven Allen), an American writer seeking experience and a whiff of Old World dissolution in Berlin.

He and Sally embark on a madcap affair born of convenience as much as sexual attraction. She needs a place to stay, and he has a room at a boardinghouse arranged by his Nazi-sympathizing benefactor, Ernst Ludwig (J. Fred Shiffman).

Sally and Cliff’s fling is set against a more old-fashioned romance between landlady Fraulein Schneider (Dorothy Stanley) and her decorous Jewish suitor, Herr Schultz (Walter Charles), as well as the extremely sailor-friendly tenant Fraulein Kost (Sherri L. Edelen).

Arena’s production uses elements and songs from the original 1966 Broadway production as well as from Bob Fosse’s 1972 Oscar-winning film starring Liza Minnelli as an iconic Bowles.

The winning comic tune, “It Couldn’t Please Me More” (known as “The Pineapple Song”), doesn’t appear in the film, but Miss Smith restores it and amplifies the innocent charm by having smiling hula girls shimmy in the aisles. “The Money Song” is a combination of the Broadway and movie versions, an amalgam that drags out the number in a first act that already seems too long.

There are times when the political layering works, ironically in one of the production’s more subdued moments. The Master of Ceremonies and the male Kit-Kat dancers, dressed in faded floral robes and boas, wearily sweep up and call it a night, singing, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” as a tender anthem to a day when homosexual rights will be an accepted part of life. It’s not until the second act, when, roused by a drunken Fraulein Kost, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me “becomes a chilling portend of the persecution and blind nationalism to come.

The moments when it all comes together are fleeting, and as much as you try to enjoy this gorgeous and affecting musical, the strain and overreaching are just too much.

It’s unfortunate timing that public television broadcast “Liza With a Z” this week because the show featured Miss Minnelli singing the heck out of “Cabaret” and “Maybe This Time.” Miss Gillentine possesses Cyd Charisse’s silkily scissoring gams and is an exceptional dancer, but despite her attempts at being a bad girl, she projects wholesomeness and heartiness. It’s like watching Doris Day sing “Ten Cents a Dance.”

Mr. Oscar, normally a relaxed and canny performer, sinks into vaudeville shtick in the part of the Master of Ceremonies and is burdened with makeup that renders him as one of those scary European clowns. Masterful, restrained performances by Miss Stanley and Mr. Charles as the older sweethearts show the young folks how it’s done.

It’s funny that for all the proselytizing about totalitarian regimes and the hounding of Jews and homosexuals, Miss Smith does not see fit to take on the plight of women. Sally Bowles and the rest of the ladies in “Cabaret” are depicted as grasping and greedy in the beginning of the show and display their flesh for paying customers right up to the very end. If you’re going to modify a musical to express your sympathy for human rights, why tolerate entrenched sexism? Sally Bowles and the other women in “Cabaret” deserve better.

**

WHAT: “Cabaret,” book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Selected noon matinees in October. Through Oct. 29.

TICKETS: $55 to $74

PHONE: 202/488-3300MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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