Veteran director Jules Aaron brings a fresh sense of moral outrage to "Cabaret," the classic Kander and Ebb musical, at the International City Theatre in Long Beach. And although Aaron occasionally veers into overemphasis, his passionately revisionist interpretation resonates.
Aaron has taken the lyric "Life is a cabaret" very much to heart in his richly atmospheric staging. A sizable portion of the audience is seated at cozy tables at the foot of the stage, where scantily clad waiters and waitresses perambulate, taking preshow drink orders.
In essence, the audience becomes an extension of Don Llewellyn's set, a strikingly spare design that, echoing Boris Aronson's set for the original production, features a mirror-like flat suspended overhead that reflects and distorts the action, fun-house style.
That disfiguring mirror becomes a statement of intent for this production -- a visual metaphor of how easily ordinary human beings can assume monstrous dimensions in turbulent times. It's a heightened, meta-theatrical effect, further emphasized by Aaron's deliberate and telling artificiality.
In Aaron's approach, all the characters -- even the boarding-house proprietor, Fraulein Schneider, and her elderly beau, Herr Schultz -- become "performers" in the Kit Kat Klub, playing out their scenes, then taking seats on the sidelines, where they collapse into affectlessness -- dead-eyed spectators in an existential purgatory from which there is no escape. It's a neat conceit emphasizing that many of these characters are doomed, trapped within a tightening net of Nazism, yet tragically underestimating the menace.
That thematic overlay, however, would be inconsequential without the excellent cast. Under the guidance of musical director Brian Murphy and choreographer Brian Paul Mendoza, the actors throw themselves into their roles with an immediacy that lends fresh pathos to familiar material.
As the feckless Sally Bowles, Erin Bennett tears into her character with no holds barred. She is mostly spectacular, although she overdoes it in the "Cabaret" number. By refreshing contrast, Christopher Carothers downplays Sally's sexually ambivalent lover, Cliff, who senses tragedy in the wind.
In her raw and moving turn, Eileen T'Kaye is magnificent as Fraulein Schneider. And as the Emcee, Jason Curri is spectacular, the dynamo driving the show. Only his weeping anguish at play's end is misplaced. Better to have the Emcee, that icon of apocalyptic decadence, remain the skull in the mask, as malevolent and inexorable as the times.
Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: March 2
Price: $35 to $45
Contact: (562) 436-4610 or www.ictlongbeach.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes