A stimulating performance for the heart and the eyes

The International City Theatre (ICT) opens its 2008 season at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center with “Cabaret,” the timeless musical that unravels in the sultry Kit Kat Klub of 1930s Berlin. Under the direction of Jules Aaron, an underground world of scandal and romance returns to the stage in this revival of a Broadway classic.

Lyricist and composer Fred Ebb and John Kander, the creative genius behind the musical “Chicago,” collaborated with playwright Joe Masteroff to bring “Cabaret” to audiences in 1966. Inspired by the real life travels of Christopher Isherwood in Berlin from 1929 to 1932, “Cabaret” tells the story of an aspiring American novelist who travels to Germany in search of inspiration.

Finding himself in the midst of fishnet stockings, liquor and a free-spirited decadence that defies the political turmoil of the era, Clifford Bradshaw meets a sassy English Klub girl, Sally Bowles, whose irresistible nonchalance and fun-loving energy immediately intrigue him.

As Germany slowly surrenders to the power of the Third Reich, all plans for a fairytale future are threatened and every character must inevitably choose their path. The empty frivolities of the cabaret give way to serious discussions and life-altering decisions that leave the characters bewildered and afraid.

The ICT was transformed to create an authentic setting for audience members. Tables and chairs replace the first section of rows so that viewers can literally immerse themselves in the ambiance of a sensual nightclub. With a fully operational bar, members of the cast, clad in lingerie or bare-chested costumes, serve aperitifs before the play begins. Smoke emanating from the stage adds to the smoldering atmosphere, while girls lounge spread-eagle on barstools or hang on the necks of their male counterparts with cigarettes hanging loosely from their lips. The backdrop consists of a chain-link fence against which the live jazz band sits and a sign composed of bulbs flashes the word “Cabaret.”

Opening the show, the emcee, Jason Currie, shocks and amuses the audience not only with his impressive vocals but also with his eroticism and violent presentation of a crumbling Germany. He orchestrates the play as its master ringleader, guiding and participating in its raw sexuality. Choreographed by Brian Paul Mendoza, the dances and movement in the production are characterized by their energy and carnality. Actors who are not performing remain on the side portions of the stage, frozen in snapshot positions that encapsulate the feeling of the 1930s.

Symbolic props, such as a bed that converts into a coffin, poignantly embody both the sexuality as well as the impending doom of two competing worlds that can no longer coexist. While the first act indulges in the temptations of the Kit Kat Klub, the second act bears witness to the infiltration of the Nazis into a once-alive, flourishing community where the people are unavoidably divided.

However, all come together for the final moment in which a mirror crowning the stage is rotated, revealing metal scaffolding with the words “arbeit macht frei” or “work brings freedom,” a phrase placed at the entrance of a number of concentration camps. The characters rest motionless in the oppressive shadow of this inscription, looking up at its intrinsic irony in a stance of fated submission.

Overall, the production, with its inventive set design and cast of gifted singers, makes for an entertaining yet unsettling revival of a classic musical about love and tragedy. Leading actress Erin Bennett, in the role of Sally, impresses audiences with her vocal range and power while bringing a subtle humanity to the play. At the ICT, “Cabaret” undoubtedly lives on.

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