Arena's 'Cabaret,' Heavy on the Makeup

Brad Oscar is the oily Emcee in the musical
Brad Oscar is the oily Emcee in the musical "Cabaret," which Arena Stage has apparently re-engineered for the subtlety-impaired. (By Scott Suchman -- Arena Stage)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006

Tomorrow, it turns out, belongs to the drag queens. Pushing brooms in director Molly Smith's idea of the notorious Kit Kat Klub, that Broadway-style bastion of Weimar Germany's decadence, men in rouge and fishnet stockings are chosen to belt out "Cabaret's" Aryan anthem, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."

You may recall that in Bob Fosse's movie adaptation, a young blond Adonis with a swastika sings it in a beer garden. Joe Masteroff's original script says only that the club's "handsome," "well-scrubbed" and "idealistic" waiters are to perform it.

So which tomorrow are the cross-dressers at Arena Stage singing about? One, apparently, that looks beyond the rise of the Nazis and the era of "Cabaret" and all the way forward to Dame Edna. In Smith's weird re-engineering, the show becomes a shrill sandwich sign for all manner of editorializing. At one point, Nazi hooligans pummeling one of the musical's main characters even take time to pose for pictures with their victim in mimicry of the unforgettable freeze-frames from Abu Ghraib.

The show may be based on the play "I Am a Camera," but all these rhetorical inserts make it feel more like "I Am a Billboard."

What's drained away in this flashy, overthought incarnation that kicks off Arena's new season is the brute power of a simple, stinging metaphor. "Cabaret," after all, doesn't need any outside help in getting its message across. The Kander and Ebb numbers for the Kit Kat Klub, presided over by the oily Emcee and played here by a perpetually growling Brad Oscar, were designed to tow the musical's political freight. The songs all mirror aspects of the social upheaval fueling the Fascist ascendancy in the 1930s, whether they take on German impoverishment ("The Money Song") or a disintegrating morality ("Two Ladies") or the spreading stain of anti-Semitism ("If You Could See Her").

Smith's license with political context may have been inspired by what Sam Mendes did to "Cabaret" in a widely admired 1998 version that starred Alan Cumming and ran on Broadway for six years. The production had amazing energy, not to mention Natasha Richardson. But Mendes, too, exhibited a penchant for superfluous exclamation points: His ending, for instance, was a jaw-droppingly obvious reference to the concentration camps.

And yet Smith's sledgehammer approach makes Mendes's tinkering seem pantywaist. The aforementioned "If You Could See Her" traditionally has the Emcee dancing with an actor in a gorilla suit, and singing his complaint that the world would accept their love if only it would see her through his eyes -- and that, then, she "wouldn't look Jewish at all." Not exactly subtle. In the song's vaudeville pastiche of sweetness and melancholy, the word "Jewish" is all the shock value an audience requires (even if you've heard it many times before).

At Arena, however, as the song ends, a cage rises in the middle of the Fichandler stage, the gorilla is shoved into it, the mask yanked off, and the hapless primate-inmate sent down through the trapdoor to certain doom. The only touch missing is a high-pitched scream.

Smith, Arena's artistic director, has shown herself able to pull off a big musical; her handsome, red-blooded revival of "South Pacific" in 2002 remains her best work in this category. (Incidentally, it was a musical in which, op-ed-wise, she showed a lot more restraint.) There are hints of that skill and insight in "Cabaret" in which she can suddenly startle with a moment of alarming resonance, as in the second-act reprise of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."

The cast breaks into a tipsy rendition of it during the engagement party for Fraulein Schneider (Dorothy Stanley) and her Jewish tenant, Herr Schultz (Walter Charles). The actors link shoulders except for Herr Schultz, who stands apart -- not offended, but boozily enraptured by the music. The moment is poignantly on the mark, capturing the denial in which many German Jews lived during the early stages of Hitler's rise.

The production is also technically adept, which in light of the brilliance of the score may be all that audiences will require. The scenes move, and the tricky transitions between the club numbers and the story of the offbeat dalliance of chanteuse Sally Bowles (Meg Gillentine) and the writer Clifford Bradshaw (Glenn Seven Allen) flow deftly on set designer Anne Patterson's multiple platforms. The costumes by Austin K. Sanderson and conducting of a nine-member band by George Fulginiti-Shakar are stylishly handled. David Neumann's choreography, on the other hand, is merely serviceable.

The motif is of beauty and hideousness intertwined, but the loudness of Smith's meddling drowns out almost everything. It's interesting to note that some of the best performances are in subsidiary roles: J. Fred Shiffman's Ernst Ludwig, the seemingly mouselike Berliner who later reveals himself as a more malevolent sort of rodent, injects just the right variety of ambiguous affability; and Charles's Herr Schultz proves to be the most touchingly vulnerable character on the stage.

If only some of Schultz's fragility had rubbed off on Gillentine. The actress, so suave last year as the Devil's own Lola in Arena's "Damn Yankees," has the showgirl sass for Sally: We first catch a glimpse of her, dancing gleefully in midair, a la Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge." But she's too solid a citizen for the layer of heartbreak we seek; beneath the surface good-time girl, we have to believe that everything can crack.

Her delivery of "Maybe This Time," lifted from the 1972 Fosse movie, does not successfully draw on Sally's sense of desperation. Her version of the title song, performed as she writhes on a piano (and thus recalling Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Fabulous Baker Boys"), is polished and energetic, if not deeply affecting.

Allen's Clifford and Stanley's Fraulein Schneider are workmanlike. No one works harder, though, than Oscar, whose Emcee snarls at us menacingly from the very start. You not only weary of it, you also begin to wonder what he's so angry about.

And sure enough, in the play's finale, Smith sews in yet another bit of literal commentary to explain it all. With all the strong instruments in the show's accomplished orchestra, you shouldn't be adding a megaphone.

Cabaret, book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed by Molly Smith. Choreography, David Neumann; music director, George Fulginiti-Shakar; set, Anne Patterson; costumes, Austin K. Sanderson; lighting, Joel Moritz; sound, Phillip Scott Peglow. With Sherri L. Edelen, Julie Burdick, Diego Prieto, Lynn McNutt, Monique L. Midgette, Jason Strunk. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Oct. 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit .

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