Every new “Cabaret” seems to strain harder to invest the Kander and Ebb musicalization of Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” with a profound statement about the Third Reich and/or universal evil in a quasi-Brechtian style. As such, a high tolerance for pretentiousness enhances enjoyment. In the revival at Long Beach’s Intl. City Theater, the ever-strong score plays well, but many of the conceptual touches rankle.
With selected patrons seated at cafe tables to help create the notorious Kit Kat Klub, helmer Jules Aaron manipulates Don Llewellyn’s boxy setpieces so the Klub keeps bleeding into the boarding/bawdy house where American visitor Clifford Bradshaw (Christopher Carothers) gets up the courage to sally forth into Berlin nightlife. Performing book numbers as cabaret turns, cast members disappear only in preparation for entrances; otherwise, they assume grim poses off to the side when not stopping to glare at the aud in what seem meant to be Brechtian accusations of complicity.
Resulting unity is efficient but simplistic and reductive, blurring librettist Joe Masteroff’s carefully crafted distinction between pre-Hitler German realities and the escape nightclubs provided. Life is a cabaret, fine; but if life is nothing else, then this tuner becomes a one-note series of gloomy intimations of disaster. With the exception of the naive Jewish grocer Herr Shultz (Paul Zegler), production is endowed with 20/20 foresight of history, eliminating any measure of hopefulness or suspense.
The nervously written Clifford character, always tough to credit in his attraction to neurotic artiste Sally Bowles (Erin Bennett), becomes still more problematic when (as here) he’s made more or less exclusively homosexual, including a ludicrous male-male kiss in the middle of his ballad begging Sally to stay with him and keep the baby he may have fathered. Carothers is too earthbound, never intoxicated enough with Weimar Republic glitz to make the character credible.
Bennett’s coke-sniffing rendition of the title tune would work better if she balanced her hearty Auntie Mame flamboyance with some early hints of vulnerability. Still, she’s got the right pipes.
As the cabaret’s amoral Emcee, tall, likable Jason Currie takes on a role advantaged by neither height nor likability. Mincing around in designer Soojin Lee’s Pleasure Chest accoutrements, he exudes all the decadence of an undergrad in a Hasty Pudding show, his plummy baritone unsuited to tones of sinister suggestion. (Later, he’s tastelessly directed to transform into a catatonic victim sporting a yellow star and singing a dirge-like rendition of “I Don’t Care Much.”)
Show could use a large dose of genuine nastiness, the ensemble of slags and twinks playing at grotesquery rather than embodying it. For all their posturing and Fosse-like dance moves — rather too finely choreographed by Brian Paul Mendoza for a crummy dump like the Klub — they conjure up less menace than does Joshua Ziel’s chilling Ernst, who deftly demonstrates the evil lurking behind a casual grin.
Effective, because they’re equally real and direct, are Zegler and Eileen T’Kaye as the older couple hoping to make a go of latter-day romance. They’re touching in their “Pineapple” duet, while T’Kaye breaks hearts as she rationalizes bending to the Nazi wind in the air in her ballad flavorfully evocative of Kurt Weill, “What Would You Do?”