Theater review: 'Cabaret' at UCLA's Freud Playhouse
Really, why are you sitting idly in your room when Reprise Theatre Company is presenting such a satisfying revival of “Cabaret,” the eternally captivating musical set in manic, hard-partying Berlin just prior to one of history's most sinister turns?
The production, robustly directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, is at its best in portraying the gradual dawning of the Nazi nightmare on characters who have been far too engrossed in their own personal travails to notice that the skies above them are rapidly darkening. But before the light is completely extinguished, we are invited to enjoy the riotous gaiety of the Kit Kat Klub, the seductively seedy emblem of a vanishing Weimar era.
The show, made famous by John Kander and Fred Ebb's ingeniously jazzy score, the landmark performance of Joel Grey as the slithering, creepy-cool emcee and the legendary Bob Fosse film that made Liza Minnelli a household name, captures the tremors of awareness of people dancing and romancing on the edge of a cliff. Time is visibly passing, a chapter concluding, and this musical, as daring now as it was when it premiered on Broadway in 1966 under the intrepid direction of Harold Prince, captures the mind-set of those who refuse to believe that the worst is yet to come.
Bryce Ryness, the pungent musical theater presence who stood out in Pasadena Playhouse's “Dangerous Beauty” and La Jolla Playhouse's “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” finally has a role worthy of his idiosyncratic gifts. He plays the cane-twirling Master of Ceremonies with the rouged cheeks who welcomes us to this giddily licentious world with “Willkommen,” the astringent opening number that sets the defiantly upbeat tone of a show that owes a greater debt perhaps to Bertolt Brecht than to mainstream Broadway.
Ryness' song-and-dance prowess allows him to create his own version of a character indelibly originated by Grey. Rather than offering a faded Xerox, Ryness' emcee takes vigorous ownership of his surroundings. This nightclub is his kingdom, and the pleasures of sex, alcohol and cold, hard cash are ones that he has no interest in experiencing secondhand, as raucously spelled out in such musical interludes as “Two Ladies” and “The Money Song.”
The setting, naturally, is a stage, and the bright red curtain of John Iacovelli's super-vivid scenic design never lets you lose sight of your theatrical bearings, even when the action moves to the rooming house owned by Fräulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray), a German woman with a soft heart who has just taken in Clifford Bradshaw (Jeff McLean), a young American writer determined to make his mark, if only he can resist the siren call of the omnisexual Kit Kat Klub.
This is where the bisexual Clifford encounters a fellow expatriate, the British chanteuse Sally Bowles (Lisa O'Hare), who becomes instantly smitten with this shy fellow from Pennsylvania who cobbles together his rent through hourly English lessons. One day, without any notice, she arrives at Fräulein Schneider's door with her bags in tow, and decides it's time for Clifford to become better acquainted with his heterosexual side.
Joe Masteroff's book, based on John Van Druten's play and Christopher Isherwood's brilliant stories, is sketchy in its handling of this romance. The attraction between Clifford and Sally is too capricious to take seriously. The other ill-starred love story, between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Robert Picardo), a German Jewish fruit merchant, is more carefully prepared and thus more moving in its outcome. (Gordon Murray and Picardo give touching life to this late-middle-age romance, marred by murderous historical events.)
McLean, who possesses an agreeably straightforward singing voice, plays his part to type, walking around, as his character says of himself, with a Yankee Doodle sign on him. But it's an affectionate cartoon that fulfills the role's broad outline while allowing us to become invested in Clifford's fate.
O'Hare, seen last season in Reprise's “Gigi” and who won favorable attention for her performance as Eliza Doolittle in the Ahmanson Theatre's presentation of “My Fair Lady,” has to rein in her considerable vocal talent for a character who may make her living onstage but clearly isn't heading to Broadway any time soon. There's a pixie quality to O'Hare's Sally, who prances nervously about in costume designer Kate Bergh's flapperish get-ups. It's not the most subtle characterization, but it has charm and, like McLean's, it endearingly does the trick.
A strong supporting cast, featuring Katrina Lenk as German prostitute Fräulein Kost, and Zach Bandler as the amiable German Ernst Ludwig who turns out to be the opposite of what he initially seems, lifts this production every bit as much as the crackerjack female orchestra led by musical director Christy Crowl.
This “Cabaret” is a delight on musical terms alone. But it was the unexpected resonance of the story, set in tumultuous times more extreme than our own but by no means unrelatable, that made this revival seem so fresh and urgent.
"Cabaret,” Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 25. $73-$78. (310) 825-2101 or www.reprise.org Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Photos: Top: Lisa O'Hare and Jeff McLean. Middle: Bryce Ryness. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times