Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Traditionally, the 1966 musical by Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics) alternates between scenes set in the Kit Kat Klub, where the Master of Ceremonies (Brad Oscar) officiates and Sally Bowles (Meg Gillentine) is the star, and the rest of 1931 Berlin, where American author Clifford Bradshaw (Glenn Seven Allen) is trying to write a novel. Anne Patterson's scenic design ingeniously merges the two locations on the multi-leveled Fichandler Stage: the four-piece Kit Kat orchestra, led by pianist and conductor George Fulginiti-Shakar, never leaves its side of the stage (and "even the orchestra is beautiful," as costumed by Austin K. Sanderson), and the cabaret tables and chairs do double and triple duty representing other settings.
Smith is working with a 1987 revision of the 1966 script, which unlike the original emphasizes that Cliff has had affairs with both women and men. She also incorporates the songs added to the film version ("Mein Herr," "Maybe This Time") that originally did not appear in the play.
Oscar's portrayal of the Emcee is quite different from Joel Grey's demonic, impish character, immortalized in the 1972 film version, or Alan Cumming's ravenously sexual portrayal in the 1998 Broadway revival. This Emcee is a large, bald, imperious man who rules the Kit Kat Klub in an almost militaristic manner, which becomes naturally ironic as the real bullies take power in Germany.
The weak spot in the production comes from Gillentine's portrayal of Sally Bowles, the eternal lost soul looking for love and success wherever she can find them. Plainly stated, this Sally is too earthbound, not mercurial enough. She's solidly American, conveying little of the mystery that Sally needs to project, and she doesn't really demonstrate the necessary extremes of emotion until her performance of the title song late in the show.
Walter Charles, an accomplished singing actor, gives a subtle and heartbreaking performance as Herr Schultz, the grocer who still believes he is more German than Jewish. Dorothy Stanley is lovely and graceful as landlady Fraulein Schneider, and if her singing is less accomplished than his, she holds her own. As Cliff's German friend Ernst, J. Fred Shiffman is appropriately poised and inscrutable, and Sherri L. Edelen is amusingly malicious as resident prostitute Fraulein Kost.
The role of Cliff remains problematic, difficult to like or understand: naïve enough to fall under the spell of Berlin and Sally's affections, and essentially passive. Allen comes across as very young, and frankly rather annoying, until circumstances force him to come to terms with the collapse of society and order around him.
Smith and choreographer David Neumann understand the importance of striking visuals: the denizens of the Kit Kat Klub include enormously fat men and both male and female cross-dressers, and a few individual images will make audiences catch their breath. Even the most innocent-seeming and humorous moments take on disturbing new meanings in the distorting mirror of this production.
Sanderson's costumes range from the purposely seedy to the stylish, specifically Sally's fur coat of many colors.