Willkommen, old chum

If the version of Cabaret opening at Fair Park Music Hall April 4 were based on the 1972 movie, casting Lea Thompson as Sally Bowles would be an understandable move. After all, in the movie Liza Minnelli transformed Sally into a plucky American singer trying to get discovered, performing in a racy club in Berlin, and looking for love in all the wrong places. Thompson can sing and dance, and she's probably been described as perky more often than Dolly Parton's rack, but this isn't the movie version. This is a retelling of the original musical, and it's more like A Sexy Musical about Drug Abuse, Abortion, Old People Getting It On, and the Rising Popularity of Nazism.

This is Sam Mendes' Cabaret. And before he had to build a trophy room to hold the statuettes he won for directing American Beauty, he had a room where he kept all of his Cabaret awards. He originally produced the musical in London for Donmar Warehouse and brought it to New York two years ago. It's still playing there, though it's changed venues from the Henry Miller Theatre to Studio 54, and Susan Egan and Michael Hall have replaced Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming in the roles of Sally Bowles and Emcee. Its popularity spawned a touring version, which plays Fair Park through April 16 with Thompson starring as Sally.

Perhaps Thompson is trying to lose that squeaky-clean image from Caroline in the City by wallowing in the muck. She replaces Joely Fisher, who replaced Teri Hatcher, making the role of Sally in the touring Cabaret a refuge for television stars trying to reinvent themselves with a little grunge after playing the same cheery character for too long. This Sally is a cabaret singer, only, unlike Minnelli's character, Mendes' leads can't sing like the daughter of Judy Garland weaned on Broadway lights. His point: if she could, would she still be stuck in that dump? In fact, she runs out of money and forces her way into the boarding room of Cliff, an American who's in Berlin to write his big novel. The musical's other story (which was pushed to the side and distorted in the movie) features Cliff's landlady Fraulein Schneider, who is engaged to a Jewish store owner. The Nazis begin their ascent to power, Sally gets pregnant, and everyone ends up alone. All the action is reflected in the twisted fun-house mirror of the Kit Kat Klub, where the Emcee (played by Jon Peterson, who recently replaced Norbert Leo Butz) and the Kit Kat Girls and Boys act as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action through suggestive musical numbers.

Though the stories in the movie and musical are basically the same, the atmosphere is completely different. The Bohemian charm is replaced by the look of a third-rate S & M club. Green nail polish and cross dressers may have been decadent and shocking to audiences in 1972, but that won't cut it now. The performers sport heroin track marks, bruises, torn stockings, ripped lingerie, and battered leather. While Joel Grey's Emcee looked like a demented Charlie McCarthy minus the ventriloquist, this Emcee has red sequined nipples and a harness outfit that Cumming said works like a Wonderbra for boys -- lift and shove forward. Ouch. The beloved Kander and Ebb songs are still used, but the tone is different. Minnelli made "Cabaret" an anthem; here it's more of a whispered excuse for bad decisions and indiscretions. "Two Ladies" gets updated too, with one of the ladies actually being a man in drag. Some of the changes are subtle; others are very obvious -- hearing Sally warble through "Mein Herr" instead of buying it note by note with her soul, for example. But Mendes managed to make it even more powerful by dressing it down and taking it out for a night of wine from a box and a ride in a stolen car.

Shannon Sutlief

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Shannon Sutlief

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