Sarah Wolter (center) plays Sally Bowles in this unimaginative retread of Cabaret.
Sarah Wolter (center) plays Sally Bowles in this unimaginative retread of Cabaret.
Laura Durant

Liza With a Zzzzz . . .

What good is sitting alone in your room when you can go watch the folks at Phoenix Theatre flog another famous musical to death? Cabaret is PT's latest awkward attempt to look like a professional theater company without offering anything inventive or genuine. Art usually loses out over artifice at PT, where the name of the game is cranking out musicals that look as much like the film (or recent Broadway remount) version as possible. This time out, the single innovation -- casting a sleepy, middle-aged man in the role of the usually youthful and effervescent Emcee -- is such a blunder that I'm still queasy thinking about it.

I confess that my expectations were high, after seeing PT's stunning production of Chicago last season, directed and choreographed by Michael Barnard and featuring Robert Kolby Harper, both of whom are involved in this messy and ultimately dull rerun, which is mostly a showcase for actress Sarah Wolter. Wolter, who plays Sally Bowles here, is an appealing performer, but I'd like to see her do something other than a dead-on impersonation of Liza Minnelli. She was obviously hired for her ability to play Liza, who starred in the famous film version of Cabaret, and she nails every one of Minnelli's odd facial twitches and limp-wristed stances. I guess we should be glad Wolter's doing '70s-era Cocaine-and-Leotards Liza, rather than New Millennium Married to a Scary-Looking Homosexual Liza, which would be just plain terrifying.

In this production, that kind of terrifying comes from Robert Kolby Harper, who is 20 years too old and a hundred years too untalented to be playing the Emcee, an evil elf who, as written and usually performed, must simultaneously frighten and delight us with his sexy smarminess. Harper is just plain scary, in the way that your grouchy old Uncle Harold would be scary if he were to apply a pound of whiteface and pull on a pair of fishnets. It's time Harper abandoned youthful, athletic roles and began playing something more his speed -- dowagers, for example.



Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road

Continues through October 3. Call 602 -258-1974

Talented actors like Mike Lawler and Betsy Beard and Terey Summers (who, as usual, is captivating, this time as a giggly hooker with a mean streak) provide some respite, but mostly what we're looking at here is a stage rendering of the film version, with few surprises and a few too many kick lines for my taste.

The band is unusually tight, and much of the singing is better than average (particularly Beard and Lawler's duet, "It Couldn't Please Me More"), but too much energy has been put into making this Cabaret look familiar rather than fresh or unusual. The best thing about this show is Gregory Jaye's amazing and versatile set, a multi-tiered nightclub out of whose shadows pops a train car, a fruit stand, and a dusty tenement. The only flaw in Jaye's set is that it depicts the Kit Kat Klub as somewhat more swanky than it's meant to be. But it provides an eye-pleasing backdrop for a Cabaret that's not so much for fans of musical theater as it is for fans of female impersonation. And kick lines.



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