Dallas Theater Center steams up the Wyly with Cabaret

Life may be a cabaret, old chum, but Cabaret onstage is not Cabaret the 1972 Bob Fosse movie. The sprawling, super-sized Cabaret that just opened at the Dallas Theater Center downtown is its own animal, an irresistibly sexy beast, even when it's indulging in wretched excess and heavy-handed messages. Get ready for divine decadence and much, much more, with enough nipple-tweaking and junk-grabbing onstage to cause clutch-the-pearls gasps from the crowd out front.

Directed and choreographed by DTC associate artist Joel Ferrell, this is Cabaret as a pageant of pansexuality set in a nightclub in Berlin in 1929. Leading the seduction with a demonic come-hither leer is the Emcee, played by West Coast actor Wade McCollum, who's done the role at Portland Center Stage in Oregon (in a production also choreographed by Ferrell) and elsewhere. Playing against the androgynous Joel Grey/Alan Cumming type, McCollum rules the Kit Kat Klub with a seething, hyper-masculine swagger. Head shaved, eyes rimmed in black smudges, chin fringed with a triangle of dark fuzz, he's a hottie Nosferatu with ripped abs and menacing pelvic bones (well displayed in revealing fetish-play costumes by Clint Ramos). He's also a hell of a singer and dancer. Who needs Sally Bowles when the Emcee's the real star?

Sally, played by New York actress Kate Wetherhead, isn't the glamorous, front-and-center figure that Fosse made her in the Liza-dominated film. In the stage version Sally is British, unlikable and a bit of a whore, little more than a footnote to a larger story about other characters. There are long sections in Joe Masteroff's plodding script when Sally's not even around. This is a good thing, it turns out, since the smaller-than-life Wetherhead is almost lost in the vast acreage of the Wyly Theatre, like Edith Piaf forced to sing in Yankee Stadium. Wetherhead belts loudly into the microphone on big numbers "Mein Herr" and "Maybe This Time," but under a rust-colored Janet Gaynor wig, she's a dead-eyed, passionless waif.

If this Cabaret's hormonal surges come from the Emcee and his humpy chorus kids—Walter Lee Cunningham Jr., Jeremy Dumont, Katharine Gentsch, Tiffany Hobbs, Elise Lavallee, Traci Lee, Jason Moody, Alex Ross, Merrill West, Kent Zimmerman—its heart and soul belong to a couple of characters absent from the film. They are the old-maid Berlin boarding house landlady, Fräulein Schneider (played by Dallas' own Julie Johnson), and her Jewish boarder, a fruit vendor named Herr Schultz (Fort Worth actor David Coffee). Their courtship, tentatively born over late-night sips of schnapps, is charming as they sing and waltz to a ballad inspired by a humble pineapple. When their planned marriage is halted by Kristallnacht, it's an emotional turning point. These musical theater veterans know how to act longing and heartbreak into their songs. Johnson has never sounded better.

The old couple represents the gentility being swept aside by the rise of the Reich. Cabaret, taking place on the verge of Hitler's rise to power, is based on autobiographical stories by Christopher Isherwood and a play (I Am a Camera) adapted from them by John van Druten. In Fräulein Schneider's house, the residents and their friends, including Schultz, Sally Bowles, bisexual American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Lee Trull), a prostitute (Sally Nystuen Vahle) and the mysterious Ernst Ludwig (Chamblee Ferguson), interact with increasing tensions as their political loyalties are revealed. The Kit Kat Klub serves as their great distraction from politics, a sleazy if appealing underground oasis away from the ugliness emerging in German society. "In here, life is beauuuuutiful," the Emcee keeps telling us, even as outside the sound of jackboots begins to overpower the stomping rhythms of the chorus line.

And what a chorus. Crawling, slithering, grinding on each other like creatures in heat, the dancers in Cabaret can't and won't keep their paws off each other. Ferrell gives each an eccentric identity—look closely at Frenchie (Cunningham) who has she-parts up top and he-parts below—but sometimes groups them as a Hydra-headed monster of unrestrained sexuality. With mismatched bits of lingerie on the girls and shorts and leather straps on the men, they squirm and undulate to the syncopated beats of John Kander's score. Everyone's hands seem to be squeezing something on someone else, like German Expressionist hippies in some Weimar-style production of Hair. They'll even grab you if you're seated at one of the tiny café tables crammed onto the main floor of the Wyly.

Except for Wetherhead, who has become a pet import at DTC (this is her third musical there and first starring role), the cast of Cabaret is exceptionally strong. Resident company member Trull, coming off a lead in DTC's sold-out run of Arsenic and Old Lace, injects some subtle comedic energy into the boring conversations between his character, Cliff, and Sally, with whom Cliff dallies between backstage dates, his and hers, with dancing boys. Vahle, as the hooker Fräulein Kost, is beautifully loose, wrapping herself like a jellyfish around the pretty sailors she introduces as her "nephews." SMU student actor Teddy Spencer has little to say but projects an intimidating presence as slick-haired Kit Kat manager Max.

In 1993, British director Sam Mendes re-imagined Cabaret at his intimate Donmar Warehouse theater in London. His production eliminated some of the stage version's original songs and mixed in ones that Kander and Ebb wrote for the Fosse film. Mendes made his entire theater into the Kit Kat Klub (complete with bar service), put the band in their underwear and gave it all a lewd, gritty roughness. Roundabout Theatre in New York did their take on Mendes' concept of Cabaret in 1998.

Ferrell incorporates some of those tricks for the current DTC staging, though the Wyly's hangar-like space makes it hard to pretend that it's some smoky side-street boîte There are sections of tables (with tiny hard chairs) at which patrons can order overpriced cocktails, but you'll get a better view of the action from the green seats at the back, on the sides or in the two balconies.

Designer Bob Lavallee's scenery turns the Wyly into a Vegas showroom more than a nightclub, with a long tongue of stage extending diagonally into the house and a trestle-like bridge above. Ferrell uses the set to keep his actors on the prowl throughout the show. Look into the shadows to find the Emcee hanging over a banister or one of the dancing girls lurking on a stairway or slumped into one of the "go-go boxes."

Lighting by Lap Chi Chu casts broad beams of white—so textural they could be long pillars of silk—onto the stage during the musical numbers. Piped-in fog adds a pale layer of fuzz to the air.

Telling details pile up in this highly conceptualized, sexed-up Cabaret. Bits of confetti. Flakes of snow. A single brick held over the head of Herr Schultz by the Emcee. When the music finally stops, there is a last startling flash of naked bodies that evokes a chilling image of the Holocaust. Too much? Perhaps. If it's upsetting, look away, order another drink. In the Kit Kat Klub, entertainment über alles.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner