I arrived at Desert Stages thinking Whatever dreck I see tonight is exactly what I deserve. And How desperate for a paycheck am I? And You know it's summer in Phoenix when you're driving for half an hour to see a community theater production of Cabaret. I left the theater thinking, Who would have guessed it? And Where the heck has Jessica Godber been hiding? And What are all these talented people doing working in a strip mall in the middle of nowhere?
They're pulling off a rip-snorting Cabaret, for one. If I wasn't expecting much, it's because this perennial musical is usually mauled by college theater troupes and small, earnest companies like Desert Stages. Kander and Ebb's familiar score is best served by big voices, and Joe Masteroff's wicked translation of Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories needs a wider acting talent than is usually found among amateur thespians -- a fact that makes Desert Stages' superb production all the more impressive.
The production numbers set in the sleazy Kit Kat Klub are tatty and amateurish, harshly lit and danced by non-dancers in scruffy, mismatched costumes -- and are therefore perfect. In many professional productions of this show, these numbers are slick and stagy, too opulent for the likes of a grungy backstreet Berlin nightclub. Here, songs like "Money" and "Don't Tell Mama" benefit from exactly the kind of rough talent that director/choreographers Gerry and Laurie Cullit have assembled here -- the very sort of talent one would find in such as the Kit Kat Klub.
The Cullits' excellent, stripped-down staging crams the show onto catwalks and into stairwells, transforming this smallish black box into a seamy nightclub where musical numbers begin in the flies and slither onto a cramped, dirty stage. They've handed much of the more inventive choreography to the Emcee, although Act Two's opening "Kickline Number One," performed by a gaggle of tap-dancing Nazis in Louise Brooks wigs, smacks of the delightfully cruel camp that made Harold Prince's original staging so shocking and wonderful.
Zach Bryant brings a perfect blend of naiveté and confidence -- as well as plenty of charisma and a strong singing voice -- to Cliff Bradshaw, the young American writer who falls in love with tarty Sally Bowles. And falling in love with Sally Bowles is the only possible response when she's played by Jessica Godber. Her Sally arrives from on high, in impossibly naughty ostrich-trimmed lingerie and torn fishnets, and consumes the stage for the rest of the evening. Godber plays comedy (the scene where Sally nearly orgasms at the sound of Cliff speaking English is rarely this amusing) as smartly as high drama. And when she lets fly with that final, soaring note in the rousing title song, it's enough to convince the most jaded theatergoer that life is indeed a cabaret.
As important as a strong Sally is to any Cabaret, the show can fall on its face without an amiable Emcee. Young Michael Aurit is androgynous but not genderless, campy without being stereotypically queeny, and always a pleasure to watch. He's clearly having a ball in a pile of costumes and puerile personas, among them a giant baby in a diaper, seeking suck from various female patrons, and a Tyrolean tittering about his dirndled lovers (one of them a man in Heidi drag) in "Two Ladies." His brief appearance in a grass skirt and coconut bra nearly eclipses Barbara McBain's touching solo on "It Couldn't Please Me More."
Shame on me for assuming that Desert Stages' Cabaret would be klutzy and inept, just another retread of an oft-produced musical. And shame on you if you miss the chance to see this oddly dazzling production for yourself.
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