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Listen, old chum, Marriott brings 'Cabaret' to life

Three Stars!

One of the oft-overlooked qualities of that great John Kander and Fred Ebb masterpiece "Cabaret" is pliability. This, old chum, is a title that comes around a lot in a critic's life.

On Wednesday night at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, I was on my third trip to the party at the end of the world within the last 12 months. But like "Fiddler on the Roof," its twin in incomparable excellence (OK, let's throw in "Gypsy" and make that triplets), "Cabaret" never grows old. I'd like them to play "I Don't Care Much," one of the most beautiful melodies ever penned, at my funeral, if only it didn't send such a dodgy message.

"Cabaret" stands myriad interpretations, especially in its two remarkable central characters, the amoral Emcee and Sally Bowles, the strung-out pride of Mayfair who could do to pick up a newspaper once in a while. Along with Joe Masteroff's book, which I admire more with every viewing, Kander and Ebb's score ably supports many points of view; the only choice that feels egregious is no choice at all..

[Megan] Sikora and her director David H. Bell, seem to be going more for a shell-shocked, to-be-or-not-to-be Sally dynamic, which is a legitimately questioning place she can be for "Cabaret," but Sikora still needs to let us in on whatever new act Sally has devised, if it's still an act at all.

This Broadway actress is a formidable dancer (which puts a lot of arrows in Matt Raftery's choreographic quiver that most Sallys do not offer) and she is engaging throughout...

Clearly, Bell has decided to try and make his leads tie more organically into a show that, ideally, is as much about the audience as the characters, in the best Brechtian tradition. By casting the subtle and nuanced Steven Schellhardt, Bell gets away from those pushy, outsized Emcees, very much in vogue since the redoubtable Alan Cumming made this role his own. Schellhardt's notably self-effacing performance lands closer to the Joel Grey original, in that the Emcee feels more like a cipher or even a slightly perverse (or merely expedient) mime who happened to take a wrong turn just outside Paris, alas for him, never to return to his comfortable box.

Schellhardt's character is, fundamentally, a watcher and since that is the way those geniuses originally structured this musical, such an identity serves the piece well. The same approach follows with Patrick Sarb's understated, if poignantly sung, Clifford Bradshaw. Sarb gets that any guy who describes himself as a camera is fundamentally reactive, and that all works well. But he too comes close to the trap, the boring trap, of no choice at all. Clifford watches, and we watch with him, equally seduced. But when we pull away, we want him to be just slightly ahead of us, and that does not feel like the case.

Bell knows better than most how to make you forget the prosaic structure of this theater and scramble the visual landscape, not so much spinning things in the round as constantly cutting away on diagonals and staging the show in visual chunks not unlike wedges of cheese. That simile has limitations: Actually, Bell has forged an elegant, sexy staging (the fetish-friendly costumes are by Nancy Missimi), amply visualized by Raftery and a tight, smaller-than-usual ensemble of Kit Kat boys and girls. The designer, Thomas M. Ryan, has created an upper level of galleries, which is refreshing...

One crucial quality of "Cabaret" is an over-arching sense of panic: Nobody knows what is coming their way next (Nazis, a marriage, a baby), and even though most of them spout off versions of Fraulein Schneider's truism, "one does what one must," that does not mean they do not all aspire to apples higher on the tree. By casting legit actors like Craig Spidle (as Herr Schultz) and Annabelle Armour (as Schneider), Bell has performers who can infuse the proceedings with the fear of the unknown. The few musical compromises such casting requires are well worth the trade off.

Jameson Cooper is the most charming Ernst Ludwig I've ever seen, which makes him the most effective. And Christine Sherrill, who requires no vocal trade-offs whatsoever, is genuinely terrifying as Fraulein Kost, that lover of sailors and the Aryan race and of a type that always seems to survive when the rest of us dissolve into rubble.