Phillip Fazio, a youngish local stage director and artist in residence at Phoenix Theatre, e-mailed me recently to tell me, in effect, it isn't fair that I've given up on the smaller East Valley theaters because I think they do only tired old shows everyone's seen a hundred times. I wrote back to tell him he's right, it's not fair, and that I'd be willing to give his next show at Mesa Encore Theatre a whirl, in the name of "fairness." I admit my interest was piqued by Fazio's promise of a new twist on an old favorite, and I admired his gumption and the nervy way he nailed my boredom with a lot of little theaters.
Would that I could say I admired his take on Cabaret, as well. Fazio has, indeed, reshuffled Kander and Ebb's famous musical, dumping the show's traditional stage direction in favor of simpler, more interactive staging. And though the result is often better than good, it's also something less than revolutionary. Stripping the stage of props and doorframes isn't groundbreaking. Having one of the "Two Ladies" be a man in drag is practically a requirement when staging this show. And sticking Sally Bowles in an electric-blue pageboy doesn't draw a parallel between apathetic showgirls and apolitical '80s punkers so much as it just makes her look kind of silly.
Speaking of Sally, I should confess here that I was so discouraged to see that she is played in this production by Sarah Wolter that I actually groaned aloud when I read Wolter's name in the playbill. I'd seen Wolter do Sally as a dead-on Liza Minnelli impersonation in a Phoenix Theatre production of this show a few years ago, and was expecting more of the same mimicry from her this time around. In fact, her interpretation here is fresher and more exciting than was her Liza impression. Perhaps Wolter has grown as a performer or, this time out, had a director who didn't want her to ape a movie star. Whatever the reason, Wolter is now a relaxed, charming, and more versatile Sally, striking the necessary balance between giddy charm and exasperating self-destruction; belting a saloon song in torn fishnets one minute, whimpering in a dark corner the next.
She's matched by Kurt Whitman, who transforms Clifford Bradshaw from one of the most two-dimensional male leads in all of musical theater into an uptight yet still charming tourist.
But neither of these performances can cancel out some of Fazio's more obvious choices, like when he has his Emcee, just before final curtain, drop his cheesy German accent altogether and read his final soliloquy with a flat, American intonation. It's meant to draw another parallel between the horrors of 1920s Berlin and today's queasy political climate, but it's a self-conscious conceit that reminds us we're in a theater watching a play.
It's commendable that Fazio wants to remix a classic, and I'm ultimately glad I went to his Cabaret, old chum. But I'll have to stop short of applauding this production for taking artistic risks that a community theater audience might have missed, and say instead that Fazio and friends have turned out a better-than-average remake of a popular favorite.
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