It’s Well Worth Coming to This Lively ‘Cabaret’
When you’re directing material as familiar as “Cabaret,” audacity helps. In his staging at West Coast Ensemble, Jules Aaron displays audacity in abundance. In fact, Aaron’s in-your-face treatment of the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Joe Masteroff musical is frequently inspired, with all the immediacy of today’s headlines. When the emcee (Dean Regan) makes his entrance by jumping out of a coffin, you know you’re in for a thrilling ride.
And an occasionally bumpy one. Although Aaron earns points for sheer invention, he overreaches at key moments, notably with an 11th-hour nude scene that distracts from the horror of the denouement. Fortunately, Aaron’s instincts are usually sound, and his production team is exceptional.
The coffin figures prominently--as a bed, a bench or what have you--in Don Gruber’s simple yet highly functional set design. The set changes have been streamlined by keeping all the action centered in the cabaret, with a bare minimum of props or furniture. Even when the action shifts to another locale, the denizens of the Kit Kat Klub loom ominously in the background, their dead-eyed impassivity revealed in flashes by Joe Damiano’s foreboding lighting.
Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are divinely decadent, and Lee Martino’s propulsive choreography transcends the boundaries of this small stage. Musical director Darryl W. Archibald deftly orchestrates the fine voices in this dream cast, spearheaded by the splendid Jessica Pennington as Sally Bowles. A deceptively Betty Boop-ish character, Pennington combines acid-etched sophistication and tremulous vulnerability in one small but socko package.
Anthony Paul Meindl is low-key and engaging as Cliff, the American caught up in the turmoil as events in Germany--and his own life--spiral out of control. Far from being comic-relief geriatrics, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Jan Sheldrick and Michael Abrams, respectively) personify Old World elegance in their December-December romance.
Regan is impressively subtle as the emcee, every flutter and leer precisely to the point. Anette Sanders is particularly noteworthy as Fraulein Schneider’s whorish tenant Fraulein Kost, whose character makes the passage from the comedic to the chilling.
This is a story about passages--Germany’s descent into the vortex of Hitler’s Third Reich, Sally’s collapse into increasing promiscuity and alcoholism, and Cliff’s progression into acceptance of his homosexuality. Cliff commences crooning his love ballad “Why Should I Wake Up?” to Sally, but ultimately winds up embracing a beckoning male--the true object of his desire. Aaron emphasizes Cliff’s ambivalence throughout, reminding us that homosexuals in Nazi Germany shared the fate of the Jews. It’s a point well taken. Despite moments of excess, this should prove a standing-room-only “Cabaret.”
* “Cabaret,” West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends July 5. $25. (213) 525-0022. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
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