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Dispatch from New Zealand: Quite a 'Cabaret,' old chum

November 18, 2010 |  3:28 pm


Tents, it seems, aren't just for Cirque anymore.

In Costa Mesa, the live theater run of "Peter Pan" continues until early January in a specifically designed tent on the grounds of the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Meantime, about 6,800 miles to the west, the Auckland Theatre Company has imported a Spiegeltent (Dutch for "mirror tent") from Holland to house a racy yet compelling new production of "Cabaret."

Containing more than 1,400 pieces of stained glass and smoky mirroring, the largely bordello-red tent seats 320 and provides an effectively intimate environment for the transplanted decadence on display. The setting itself is equally unlikely: a cement wharf in an upscale marina where luxury yachts and motorcraft bob in Auckland's Waitemata Harbor, as little as 30 feet from the tent.

Inside, the company's staging banishes thoughts of the gleaming watery views outside. A six-piece band propels the familiar Kander and Ebb score, but director Michael Hurst (he also appears in the Joel Grey-role as the emcee) is the star here, having mounted a taut, affecting version of the musical. The traditionally weak story line actually supercedes the explicit choreography and musical numbers.

Sally Hurst is equally fortunate to have a compelling Sally Bowles in New Zealand actress Amanda Billing -- she gets at the fragility below Bowles' neurotic wilfullness, while her vocal entitlement turns the climactic rendition of the title song into as much a self-revealer as a show-stopper.

The Auckland Theatre Company is widely considered the most important theater company in New Zealand's biggest city. With a core staff of only 16, the group draws its creative talent from a pool working in the nation's television and movie industry. The company has no fixed theater building but instead presents in a variety of venues, "Cabaret" being its first performance in a tent. (The production runs through Dec. 18.)

The company stages an annual season comparable to the Mark Taper Forum or South Coast Repetory: a mix of comedy, drama and musicals ranging from original works by New Zealand playwrights to mountings of Broadway and Shakespearean fare.

As seen with this "Cabaret," it can add up to an in-tents experience.

-- Christopher Smith

Upper photo: the outside of the "Cabaret" tent. Credit: Sherry Stern / Los Angeles Times

Lower photo: Amanda Billing in "Cabaret." Credit: Michael Smith