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A fierce and flashy revival of 'Cabaret'

Every 10 years or so, a new version of the strident musical "Cabaret" surfaces, each time seemingly more bawdy and more dramatically involving than the last.

It stands to reason then that the current production by the Roundabout Theater Company at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts would pump up both the hedonistic raunchiness and the grim specter of growing Naziism — and it does so with a vengeance.

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Set in prewar (1929-30) Berlin in a dingy night spot called the Kit Kat Klub, "Cabaret" focuses on the budding romance between an American novelist and the club's featured chanteuse. The ever-present master of ceremonies conducts both the orchestra and the action with fiendish delight.

This latter role is made particularly noteworthy by the astounding performance of Randy Harrison, whose bisexual vibes ignite the R-rated entertainment, drawing laughs and gasps. Not a character as such but more of an ominous presence, Harrison pervades the proceedings with glee and gusto.

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The club singer, Sally Bowles, oozes around the stage like a hungry python, settling on the writer, Cliff Bradshaw, for her main course. Andrea Goss compensates for her lack of physical seductiveness with the stealth of a panther and superlative vocal clarity. She aces the title song and touches the heart with a stirring rendition of the show's second-best number, "Maybe This Time."

Benjamin Eakeley boldly takes on the role of Cliff, the conscience of the show and a link to the audience. He projects his character's growing repellence to the rise of National Socialism with intellectual if not physical courage.

A subplot at the heart of "Cabaret" is the budding, but doomed, romance between the German landlady and the Jewish fruit merchant. Shannon Cochran and Mark Nelson excel in these roles, particularly in their duet "It Couldn't Please Me More," centered on a pineapple.

Other strong contributions come from Patrick Vaill as Cliff's new friend, who enlists his help in a nefarious scheme, and Alison Ewing as the boarding house hooker who stirs nationalist passions with the Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."

Director BT McNicholl has taken over from the original helmsman, Sam Mendes, and keeps the show's brutal pace at a lofty clip. Musically, the show ripples with panache and power, although the orchestra occasionally drowns out a singer's lyrics, the most notable being Harrison's "Money" number.

One atmospheric complaint — the preponderance of onstage smoking is bothersome for many playgoers in the orchestra section. Granted, nearly everyone smoked in those days, but couldn't the smell be contained?

"Cabaret" is one of the most powerful musicals of all time, and its score by John Kander and Fred Ebb remains a classic of the genre. It's a raw, rambunctious and riveting experience at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

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IF YOU GO

What: "Cabaret"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays until Aug. 21

Cost: Call (714) 667-2787 for information

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