Theatre Out puts its personal stamp on Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, making for one of the LGBT theater’s all-around best musical offerings to date and one that solidifies its status as one of Orange County’s top two or three intimate theater companies.

 Though movie buffs will recall Cabaret from its 1973 film adaptation, true musical theater aficionados know this tale of star-crossed lovers in pre-WWII Berlin from its original 1966 Broadway production, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Joe Masteroff. To mid-’60s New York audiences accustomed to considerably brighter shows like Hello Dolly, She Loves Me, and Mame, Cabaret was dark stuff indeed, though positively sunny compared to later Broadway revivals which axed a few of its more upbeat songs while upping the show’s more (homo)sexual aspects.

The latter should hardly come as a surprise to any who’ve read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, the then 25-year-old British medical student’s recollections of his stay in the sex-and-sin capital of Europe. As Wikipedia relates, “rejecting his upper-class background and attracted to males, (Isherwood) remained in Berlin, the capital of the young Weimar Republic, drawn by its deserved reputation for sexual freedom. There, he fully indulged his taste for pretty youths. He went to Berlin in search of boys and found one called Heinz, who became his first great love.”

 Clearly, Isherwood’s real-life adventures would have been more than a tad too gay for Broadway circa 1966, and even today’s Cabaret centers around its hero Clifford Bradshaw’s very heterosexual love affair with British expatriate slash night club entertainer Sally Bowles. Still, this Cliff has a past (as revealed by an early encounter with one-time lover Bobby), and this Berlin is clearly a place where people of just about any orientation could find a way to express their sexuality openly and freely.

It’s no wonder, then, that Theater Out was eager to add Cabaret to its 2012 season, directed by managing director/co-founder David C. Carenvale, whose love of the material shines through in this spirited intimate staging.

Doubling as scenic designer, David C. Carnevale has reconfigured Santa Ana’s Empire Theatre to create a Cabaret in-the-round(ish), with matching rows of Kit Kat Klub tables-for-two facing each other on opposite sides of the theater’s long rectangular stage, the end of which serves as the Kit Kat’s performance area, while center stage is transformed into numerous other locales with the addition furniture and props. With Kit Kat Girls and Boys performing within touching distance of the audience, this is not only one of the most in-your-face Cabarets ever, it’s as if the entire show were being staged as a Kit Kat Klub show, with lead performers playing themselves and the nightclub’s Emcee and chorus girls and boys stepping into cameo roles.

 Following a show-stopping “Wilkommen,” performed by the Kit Kat Klub’s ubiquitous Emcee (Tito Ortiz), the addition of a center stage bench transforms the Kit Kat into the train compartment where Cliff Bradshaw (Jaycob Hunter) makes the acquaintance of Ernst Ludwig (Matthew Carvin), the handsome Berliner who will soon introduce him to the city’s nightlife. First, though, Ernst escorts Cliff to the boarding house of Fräulein Schneider (Sherry Domerego), whose “So What” expresses the been-there-done-that Fräulein’s “Who Cares” philosophy of life.

It’s not long before Fräulein Scheinder’s digs have morphed back into the Kit Kat Club where Sally Bowles (Andrea Dennison-Laufer) cautions club-goers “Don’t Tell Mama,” backed by a bevy of sizzling Kit Kat Girls and Boys. Cliff then gets a call at his table phone from Sally, who introduces herself to the handsome American (“Perfectly Marvelous”), and before you know it, the Toast Of Mayfair has arrived at Cliff’s room, suitcase in hand, and the two expats are shacking up together.

 It’s only a matter of time before Cliff and Sally have become lovers, and as the twosome become more intimately involved, so does Germany’s involvement with Nazism take deeper root, prompting Cliff to have second thoughts about earning extra Deutschemarks as an amateur courier for Ernst. Fräulein Schneider too begins to think twice about marrying her Jewish suitor, greengrocer Herr Schultz (Richard Comeau), who had previously won her heart by gifting her with a pineapple (“It Couldn’t Please Me More”). Berlin, which had seemed to Cliff such a perfect antidote to staid old England, now shows itself to be a considerably darker, more dangerous place to live.

Sharing kudos with director Carnevale (at his imaginative, inspired best) is choreographer Frankie Marrone, who makes ensemble numbers like the iconic “Don’t Tell Mama” seem fresh and new. An exciting, pansexual “Telephone Dance” will be a revelation to those who know Cabaret only from its 1998 Broadway revival. The racy “Two Ladies” has the Emcee cavorting, not with two Kit Kat Girls but with one Girl and one Boy, each in lacy bra and panties. Carnevale and Marrone combine “Sitting Pretty” (from the original Broadway production) and “The Money Song” (added to the film and integrated into the ’87 and ’98 Broadway revivals) to make it one of the evening’s biggest show-stoppers. The Act Two-opening “Kickline” morphs frighteningly from Rockettes kicks to Nazi goosesteps.

Theatre Out treasures Ortiz (Southern Baptist Sissies, The Violet Hour) and Dennison-Laufer (Scenie winner for last year’s The Wild Party) star as the Emcee (the role which won Joel Grey both the Tony and the Oscar) and Sally Bowles (an Oscar-winning Liza Minnelli in the movie and Tony-winning Natasha Richardson in the ’98 revival)—a savvy bit of casting indeed.

 Ortiz’s Emcee oozes a just-right combination of charisma and creepiness in one musical number after another, from his tour de force “Willkommen” to his spicy “Two Ladies” to the aforementioned “The Money Song/Sitting Pretty” to the sultry, suggestive “If You Could See Her” to the world-weary “I Don’t Care Much,” adding up to quite possibly Ortiz’s best work ever.

Dennison-Laufer further consolidates her status as Theatre Out’s reigning Leading Lady in her all-around first-rate work as Sally, saucy in “Don’t Tell Mama,” captivating in “Perfectly Marvelous,” and exhibiting real acting chops throughout. Dennison-Laufer’s eleventh hour rendition of “Cabaret” starts out bright and bubbly before morphing into something considerably more dramatic and soul-baring. (Note: Theatre Out’s Cabaret sticks to the licensed 1987 script, which means no “Mein Heir” or “Maybe This Time” and therefore, sadly, a good deal less stage time for Dennison-Laufer that you might be expecting.)

The production’s biggest surprise is handsome Theatre Out newcomer Hunter’s dynamic turn as Cliff, a role that can come across bland in the wrong hands but which Hunter acts the dickens out of, in addition to his beautifully sung “Don’t Go,” a lovely addition to the ’87 revival but rarely heard since.

Domerego and Comeau provide delightful support as Cabaret’s late-in-life lovers, a terrific Carvin makes for an equal parts charming/oily Ernst, and a dandy, randy Melanie Gable gets the plum featured role of Fräulein Kost, Fräulein Schneider’s busiest lodger, at least by night.

Kit Kat Girls Megan Endicott (Heidi), Caroline Mulvihill (Gertrude), Nicki Peek (Rosie), and Alexis Stansfield (Inga) and Kit Kat Boys Charlie Bostick (Bobby), JT Corzine (Victor), swing Marrone (stepping in for Jared Ryan Kaitz as Hans), David Miller (Max), and Sergio Mitre (Georg) sing and dance to perfection. Among them, Bostick shows off particularly gorgeous pipes (and looks fetching in bra and panties) and dance captain Peek shows off some sensational footwork in her solo bit. (Note: Miller goes on for Ortiz as the Emcee the weekend of July 26-29, with Marrone playing Max.)

Brian Sherick deserves high marks for arranging the production’s prerecorded tracks, to which the cast perform without the aid of amplification under Stephen Amundson’s expert musical direction. Joey Baital (assisted by Julia Beltran) has designed one terrific costume after another, from the Kit Kat Girls and Boys’ sexy, revealing outfits to Cliff’s sweater-slacks ensembles to Fräulein Schneider’s frumpy house dresses and everything in between. Shawn Fiddler’s lighting is another design winner (assisted by Tori Harris and Meghan Casey).

Cabaret is produced by Baital and Carenevale. Chelsea Mundy is stage manager, assisted by David J. Nestor.

Theatre Out’s is the seventh Cabaret I’ve seen over the past seven years, and one of the very best. As a showcase for some of Orange County’s top musical theater performers and the indefatigable Theatre Out production team, this is a production that both Cabaret lovers and rookies will want to put on their summer “To See” list.

Theatre Out, The Empire Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
July 13, 2012
Photos: Stephen Rack

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