There’ve been Cabarets light, Cabarets dark, and Cabarets in between, but there’s probably never been a Cabaret as pitch black as the stunning German Expressionist nightmare director Larry Carpenter has unleashed on audiences at the La Mirada Theatre For the Performing Arts.

 As any musical theater aficionado will tell you, Cabaret (book by Joe Masteroff based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and John Van Druten’s I Am A Camera) centers on a visiting American writer’s love affair with an expatriate English night club entertainer as Nazism takes its hold in pre-WWII Germany.

It’s on a Berlin-bound train that Isherwood alter-ego Clifford Bradshaw (Christian Pedersen) makes the acquaintance of Ernst Ludwig (Matt Koenig), the outgoing Berliner who will introduce him to lodgings run by seen-it-all Fräulein Schneider (Kelly Lester) and, more importantly, to Berlin’s pansexual nightlife.

 Kit Kat Club star Sally Bowles (Zarah Mahler) quickly finds herself taken by the handsome, sexually fluid American, and before you know it, the two expats have become live-in lovers.

Unfortunately for the young couple, the deeper Sally and Cliff’s intimate coupling gets, the deeper grows Germany’s infatuation with Hitler, inspiring 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 (Jack Laufer), who had previously won her heart with a pineapple, and Berlin, which had seemed to Cliff such a perfect antidote to staid old England, now shows itself to be a considerably more dangerous place to call home-away-from-home.

 Rather than start off light and go steadily darker as many before him have done, director Carpenter opens black and stays there, turning Cabaret into a two-and-a-half-hour nightmare flashback from which there is no awakening, a vision made frighteningly clear from the get-go by the oblique, off-kilter angles of John Iacovelli’s Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari-inspired set made even more dark-and-twisted by Steven Young’s über-dramatic lighting.

Outfitted by David Kay Mickelsen in skin-revealing black leather, fishnet stockings and heels, Kit Kat Girls and Boys remain onstage in various configurations virtually throughout, peeping toms to Cliff’s voyeuristic hell.

 With the exception of a mouthwateringly colorful “It Couldn’t Please Me More” that would do Carmen Miranda proud, even production numbers previously staged as cheerful respites from the darkness soon to envelop Berlin reveal director Carpenter’s nightmarish vision, choreographer Dana Solimando, doing some of her most thrilling work as Kit Kat Girls (Natalie Iscovich as Rosie, Adrianna Rose Lyons as Helga, Kelly Powers-Figueroa as Fritzie, Nina Schreckengost as Frenchie, Candace Janin Washington as Lulu, and Jenna Wright as Texas) and Boys (Rodd Farhadi as Victor, Brian Steven Shaw as Bobby, Neil Starkenberg as Hans, and Rodrigo Varandas as Herman) do their sensuously undulating, high-kicking thing on the Kit Kat stage. (Performer-musician Starkenberg merits bonus points for leading the Act Two-opening “Entre’acte” on sax.)

The chameleonlike Jeff Skowron dazzles as the Klub’s ubiquitous, androgynous Emcee, creepy-crawly and charismatic in drag queen makeup and an assortment of outfits that would do Dr. Frank N. Furter proud.

 Mahler is simply stunning as Sally, revealing acting chops to match her rock/pop-star vocals, and never more so than in an eleventh-hour “Cabaret” sung as a declaration of independence and survival.

Pedersen’s handsome, heartfelt, heart-filled Cliff is another winner as are Koenig’s sleekly charming Ernst and Erica Hanrahan-Ball’s bold and ballsy Fräulein Kost, the latter dazzling vocally in “Married” sung auf Deutsch.

Lester and Laufer bring B-story couple Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz to vibrant, deeply-felt life, charming us over tropical fruit in “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married” before breaking our hearts as their relationship puts a personal face on the impending Holocaust, and Lester sings and acts the hell out of “So What?” and “What Would You Do?”

Completing Cabaret’s all-around fabulous cast are Kit Kat Waiters Giana Bonmarito, Richard Bulda (Max), Dustin Ceithamer, A.J. Mendoza (Rudy), and Bruce Merkle.

Musical director David O conducts Cabaret’s sensational, almost all-girl band, sound designer Josh Bessom providing an expert mix of instrumentals and vocals in addition to enough train whistle howls and police siren shrieks to wake the dead.

 Anthony Gagliardi merits top marks for the production’s striking hair, wig, and makeup design, Kevin Williams for a multitude of period properties, Michael Polak for some realistic fight choreography, and dialect coach Caitlin Muelder for the cast’s London-meets-Berlin accents.

Cabaret is presented by La Mirada Theatre and McCoy Rigby Entertainment. Jill Gold is production stage manager and David Jordan Nestor is assistant stage manager. Michael Roman is technical director. Casting is by Julia Flores.

 Few musicals lend themselves more readily to a director’s personal touch than Cabaret, just one reason audiences keep coming back for more, production after production, revival after revival, year after year. At La Mirada Theatre, Larry Carpenter’s Cabaret will leave you not just entertained and moved as many have done but breathless and shaken as rarely before.

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La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.

–Steven Stanley
January 20, 2018
Photos: Jason Niedle

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