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Chekhov used to say, I have my own theater, and people assumed he was talking about the Moscow Art Theatre, but then Chekhov would tap his forehead and say, . . . in here.

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Acrosstown Repertory's 'Cabaret' cooks



Special to The Sun

It is Sunday dress rehearsal at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre. The lights come up on the emcee, played by Jonathan Gravely. He starts down some steps to launch into "Cabaret's" opening number.

"Go back," a voice calls from the darkness. "You forgot to greet the band."

Gravely begins again. In the darkness Gravely can hear co-director William Eyerly's pen scratching notes. His mind's eye pictures a whole audience of Eyerlys, each measuring his every move with a critical glare.

By the following weekend the phantoms have vanished to be replaced by flesh and blood pulsing now with Gravely's unbridled enthusiasm. I mention the whisper of hesitance about Gravely's performance the previous Sunday only because you might never have imagined it otherwise, so cocksure is he, coolly delivering the Kit Kat Club's goods.

Eyerly and Sidney Homan have fashioned a "Cabaret" that is sharp, engaging and powerful. This despite the machinery of a Broadway musical from the 1960s that has become creaky over time.

The contraption is composed of Joe Masteroff's book, Fred Ebb's lyrics and John Kander's music. The book is the weak link, devolving to predictable set pieces. But the songs carry the show.

The problem with the play's structure is that for those who live outside the world of the Kit Kat Club, life is not a musical. Eyerly and Homan face the problem head-on in their design, which situates the world outside the Kit Kat Club both within and above it, but the problem won't go away.

In the outside world, Andria Cook renders a delectable portrait of Fraulein Kost, never mind that the character seems only tangentially tied to the plot, like a relative twice-removed. Sid Homan is one scary Nazi. The two of them team up to lead the chorus in "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," and it's downright chilling.

Of course there's no point doing "Cabaret" unless you believe it's all about a problem that won't go away. We have to learn the lesson the hard way, even if we already know it: Life is not a cabaret.

But a cabaret is. And that's where "Cabaret" shines. The play itself is at a few removes from the real cabarets of Berlin that spawned Betrolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. "Cabaret," based on stories by Christopher Isherwood and assembled by a team of Broadway pros, is already a case of too many cooks.

At the heart of the matter is Sally Bowles, headliner at the Kit Kat Club, blazing through Berlin like a meteor shower that promises to leave nothing to mark its passing but charred memories.

As Sally Bowles, the blues singer Alvarez is fire to the emcee's ice. In a knockout performance that percolates with insouciant charm, Alvarez is lithe, acrobatic and fierce. To clinch it, Alvarez has the pipes to belt out a Broadway ballad and the angst to light a torch song.

"Cabaret," "The Producers" and "The Diary of Anne Frank" are all essentially the same play about the futility of flight from Fascism, a joke with no punch line, a nightmare without waking, a whore with a heart of gold brick.

Our alter ego in the grotesquerie of Berlin in the 1930s is the American writer Cliff Bradshaw, who falls in love with Sally Bowles. As played by the superb Damien Smith, Cliff is wary yet passionate, sensitive yet principled. One of the best listeners on our local stages, Smith mirrors our thoughts as the noose of Nazism tightens.

It's unfortunate that Broadway plays arrive in the hinterlands in shackles, but the strictures of previous productions do tend to weaken as time goes by. Thus a recent New York revival of "Cabaret" has given freer rein to interpretive staging.

The seediness of the Acrosstown jibes well with the raunchiness of the Kit Kat Club. And since tickets to the show are at a premium, it's wise to arrive early - not just to get a good seat, but to be enchanted by the Kit Kat girls, and in particular by Kelly Dugan.

Working the crowd before the show begins with aplomb and verve, Dugan combines sexiness with silliness to exquisite effect. When the play begins, she has her moments too, but not enough of them. Still, she's as fetching in her sailor suit as in her fishnets.

Sarah Ingley's choreography is best when it is most daring, when it busts a move you might encounter at the University Club. When it settles for a staid tap dance, it is merely playing it safe. Up to either challenge are the Kit Kat girls (Dugan, Heather Crandall, Chelsea Donaldson, Alisha Giampola and Vivian Richardson), more than the sum of their parts, fleshing out the decadence invitingly.

If the vehicle that is "Cabaret" could be customized further, it would be streamlined. The plot reaches its conclusion well in advance of the final curtain. And although Malcolm Sanford as Herr Schultz manfully carries the duets he shares with the otherwise winning Ley Bragg as Faulein Schneider, one song by the elderly couple is more than enough.

Notwithstanding, the drama in the outside world is poignant, especially given its honest playing, derived in rehearsals using the famed Whalen Method.

As a musical, the Kit Kat Club numbers alone are worth the price of admission.

And lest we too forget the band, it is entirely comprised of drummer Jared Groom and the incomparable William Powell on piano. It cooks.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Sept. 28; and 2 p.m. Sept. 15 and 22.

WHERE: Acrosstown Repertory Theatre
TICKETS: $8 for students and $10 for general public; available at Omni Book Store, Book Gallery West and at the door.

William Eyerly and Sidney Homan have fashioned a "Cabaret" that is sharp, engaging and powerful.