Review: An intimately powerful ‘Cabaret’ at the Gem Theater

Of all the versions of the dramatic musical “Cabaret” produced locally over the years, one crucial element has been absent — the feeling of intimacy, bolstering the viewer’s connection with the performers caught in a web of decadence as the Nazis rose to power in Germany.

Until now, that is.

One More Productions company in The Gem Theater in Garden Grove Garden has overcome that limitation by ripping out all of its seats and turning the venue into a circular, cabaret-style theater in the round. You could touch the actors, if you dared.

What has been lost in the creature comfort of plush seating has been more than compensated for by the immediacy and in-your-face vitality of this riveting revival brilliantly directed by Damien Lorton. There are, to be sure, sight problems, visualizing the actors as they perform, but they soon are overcome by the sheer accessibility of the production.

And what a production. Playwright Joe Masterhoff’s book and the Kander and Ebb score have never been in better hands locally. Somehow this large and energetic cast bursts into full bloom on the matchbox stage, capturing — and captivating — the audience.

The key to any successful “Cabaret” is its Sally Bowles, the English chanteuse headlining in the seedy Kit Kat Klub, and here the show hits paydirt in its own back yard. Nicole Cassesso, co-founder with Lorton of One More, beautifully unearths the hedonistic, live-for-the-moment attitude that once won Liza Minnelli an Oscar, as well as a powerful voice to carry songs like the plaintive “Maybe This Time” and the lusty title number.

A strong counterbalance is provided by Alex Bodrero as Cliff, the American writer looking for inspiration (and finding plenty) in the Berlin of the early 1930s as the Nazis were gaining influence. His growing revulsion bolsters an exceptionally strong interpretation.

Brilliance doesn’t stop there. Veteran actress Beth Hansen (who once played Sally) delivers a heart-wrenching account of the aging German landlady who falls in love with a Jew (an effectively low-key Duane Thomas). Her “So What” and “What Would You Do?” solos penetrate the souls of the theatergoers.

The ringmaster of this sordid circus is hauntingly portrayed by Danny Diaz, the devilish emcee who celebrates an alternative lifestyle with vigor and gusto. Kayden Narey enacts the Nazi party hack with a curiously fey attitude and Brianna Garmon projects both comedy and menace as the happy hooker who entertains sailors in her apartment.

The “Cabaret” ensemble, wonderfully choreographed by Shauna Bradford and Katie Marshall, fills the small staging area (imaginatively designed by Wally Huntoon) to near-overflowing with patrons seated inches away. The unseen orchestra, conducted by drummer Jeff Segal, functions ominously in the dark background.

The lone complaint in this excellent production concerns lighting — or the occasional lack of it for key characters. Staging in the round involves difficulties, which designer Jon Hyrkas has only partially overcome.

While the show now has passed its 50th birthday, “Cabaret” retains its steely gutsiness, which is a hallmark of this riveting revival at Garden Grove’s Gem Theater.

If You Go

What: “Cabaret”

When: Till Oct. 29; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: The Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove

Cost: $30

Information: (714) 741-9550 or visit

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.