‘Cabaret’s’ Dim Light

Something has happened to \"Cabaret\" on its way to the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles.
March 11, 1999

Something has happened to “Cabaret” on its way to the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles.

The award-winning musical — eight Tony Awards after its 1967 Broadway opening with Joel Grey and Jill Haworth, followed by eight Academy Awards for the dazzling 1972 film adaptation with Grey and Liza Minnelli — is not particularly well served by its current performances or its production.

Set in Berlin, circa 1930, and highlighting the last raucous days of the Weimar Republic, “Cabaret” strives to give us enthusiastic decadence, albeit overlaying a thin veneer of despair.

The setting is the Kit Kat Klub, where cynicism and sex in all combinations and permutations are to be found. This vision of “anything goes” is contrasted with the rooming-house setting, where several human dramas unfold — one between an elderly Jewish widower and the non-Jewish landlady, and the other, the central story, between a naive and sexually ambivalent American writer and the incomparable Sally Bowles.

Sally Bowles is and always has been the center of the story, from its original literary incarnation in the 1930s as part of Christopher Isherwood’s book “Berlin Stories,” to the 1950s play adaptation “I Am a Camera,” written by John van Druten and starring a young and incandescent Julie Harris.

Sally Bowles is the amoral British young singer in the Kit Kat Klub, set adrift in Berlin — out for parties and champagne, sex and pleasure, no looking back, no looking ahead. She is the sprite who bedazzles us. Truman Capote and Audrey Hepburn created an American counterpart overflowing with innocence in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and Julie Christie imparted a hard and, at the end, a desperate edge to a similar kind of character in the 1960s film “Darling.” In this production, Teri Hatcher offers us a studied British accent and a bedraggled unhappiness from beginning to end. No levels of self-deception and no despair. Just a young woman, broke and pregnant, striving for a West End accent.

Nor does the decadence work. Here it seems merely naughty posturing. Norbert Leo Butz’s emcee gives us loud, boisterous wordplay in songs that are difficult to understand. The nightclub numbers are pumped-up, playful razzmatazz, which all but blankets the despair that is lurking in the wings.

Only the secondary story, the growing doomed love between the elderly couple, one of them Jewish, is rendered with feeling and care, thanks largely to Barbara Andres and Dick Latessa, who, fortunately, slow the pace of the play.

The director, Sam Mendes of London, has staged “Cabaret” (last year in New York with Natasha Richardson) so as to convert the theater into a nightclub, the Kit Kat Club, with the audience functioning as customers who watch the accompanying songs and dances. It makes for fluidity and intimacy of a sort, but it also distances us from the events by turning the actors in the club sequences into performers.

The music itself seems tired and not particularly memorable. And, I must admit, it kept me longing for Julie Harris and the original 1950s play — more complex and more moving and much more fun. — Gene Lichtenstein, Editor-in-Chief

Tickets for “Cabaret” are available by calling (323) 365-3500 or by visiting the Wilshire Theatre Box Office at 8440 Wilshire Blvd. Shows are Tuesday through Saturday, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, at 7:30 p.m.; weekend matinees, at 2 p.m. Limited run through April 25.

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