Dark, Yet Moving

First-rate Cabaret is not Boulder Dinner Theatre's normal fare.

There's the occasional salacious gesture in Cabaret, a vanishing flash of naked butt, a blurring of sexual "isms" -- homo, tran, pan, hetero, who cares? -- a lost and libidinous leading lady who has an abortion. But I don't think that's what is keeping much of the regular Boulder Dinner Theatre crowd away -- on the night I attended, the place was half full. Perhaps it's the darkness of the piece. Cabaret is grim and distressing, and there's not a hint of redemption anywhere in it. Quite the contrary.

This is a damn fine production, the kind of production that could -- and should -- attract all kinds of people who might never think of setting foot in a conventional dinner theater: shop owners and professionals and scientists and parents and college students out on a date. Anyone, in fact, who responds viscerally to fantastic music, deft staging and vivid, all-stops-out, emotionally honest performance.

Cabaret is loosely based on English writer Christopher Isherwood's account of his life in Berlin between 1929 and 1933, as the influence of Nazism grew in Germany. Isherwood wrote about a nineteen-year-old Englishwoman he encountered called Sally Bowles, a talentless singer who lived on charm, manipulation, willful eccentricity and the distribution of sexual favors -- the kind of waiflike, Holly Golightly figure young men of the first half of the twentieth century apparently found irresistible. Sally's story is fictionalized in Cabaret, where she moves in with the sexually ambivalent protagonist Clifford Bradshaw, an American writer living in Berlin, and he proceeds to fall in love with her. There's a second love story involving a middle-aged landlady and a Jewish grocer who brings her fruit. But the show's heart lies in the decadent Kit-Kat Klub, where a leering, epicene Emcee oversees all the acts. In time, as the shadow of fascism deepens, he seems to oversee the entire city of Berlin as well.

Brian Mallgrave and Alicia Dunfee in Cabaret.
Brian Mallgrave and Alicia Dunfee in Cabaret.

Details

Presented by Boulder Dinner Theatre through November 7, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com
5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder

When Denver's Theatre Group staged Cabaret two years ago, almost all the focus was on the Kit-Kat Klub. Although many of Ebb and Kander's songs are bouncily addictive, the dancers performing them seemed tranced, as if moving through a haze of addiction and memories of abuse. Nicholas Sugar played the Emcee with such ugly and infectious delight that I thought he'd stamped the role as his forever.

In Boulder, the dancers have more vicious energy than those in Denver, but the choreography overall is less sharp -- though it's still enjoyable. However, director Michael J. Duran has focused his attention on the offstage moments and the dynamics of the love stories, and as a result, you care about both couples.

Alicia Dunfee isn't the obvious choice for the immature Sally Bowles. Dunfee is a grown-up woman, who takes the stage with authority, whether singing, deploying all her wheedling tricks on the hapless Bradshaw or affirming her arty apoliticism. ("What's this?" she asks, holding up a copy of Mein Kampf. "Is it your novel?") During the couple's big fight scene, Dunfee seems too strong, even harsh, an opponent. Nonetheless, the interpretation works. Better than works: It's a triumph. To begin with, there's the sheer pleasure of watching Dunfee sing, giving herself fully to each number, holding the audience mesmerized. She does the naive sophisticate bit with finesse, managing not only an English accent, but a period 1930s-style accent. And her emotional breakdown at the end is affecting.

John Scott Clough seems a little poised and mature also to play the innocent-abroad role, but he's still a very believable Bradshaw, moving from a bewildered outsider to the show's moral center, and providing a strong match for Dunfee.

It's so nice to watch Barb Reeves Kuepper as Fraulein Schneider and Wayne Kennedy as Herr Schultz together; I found myself mindlessly smiling almost every time they talked. Kuepper's Schneider feels genuinely middle-aged, lower-middle-class and European -- nurturing, warm and a bit bewildered by life. You empathize with her confusion, and even with her cowardice. Kennedy's Schultz is a simple man, a little slow, but his quiet declaration to Fraulein Schneider -- "I have such affection for you" -- melts your heart. In another time and another place, such affection would be transformative.

Because Brian Mallgrave's Emcee differs so significantly from Nicholas Sugar's, I found myself thinking again about the meaning of the role. I understand Isherwood himself wasn't too crazy about the conflation of homosexuality with fascism implied by the Emcee's centrality to the action. There are people who tie the decadence of Weimar Germany directly to the rise of Nazism; others who would say only that the inhabitants of the Kit-Kat Klub were too immersed in their drug-and-sex-drenched universe to sense what was happening. If you think about it, the Kit-Kat Klub does look like a shadow side of the flaxen-haired, strong-jawed, church-going Germany of Hitler's propaganda.

But then again, the Emcee isn't an inhuman or supernatural creature. He's a pathetic, self-deluded, small-time performer who only understands his own place in the scheme of things too late. Mallgrave makes the character vulnerable as well as insinuatingly powerful. He suffers visibly -- and creepily. When Schneider and Schultz gaze into each other's eyes, the Emcee hovers, watching, apparently moved almost to tears. And then he begins the destruction of their relationship. Mallgrave's is a tour de force performance.

I've be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent musicians, and the extraordinary focus and concentration everyone in the entire cast brings to the show.

First-rate acting at a dinner theater? Don't take my word for it. Check it out for yourself.

 
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