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May 18, 2010 > Theatre: Cabaret

Theatre: Cabaret

By Jay Coleman

Life is a "Cabaret" in Washington High School's (WHS) production of the classic Broadway musical "Cabaret," brought to life through May 29 in the WHS Cafeteria.

From the moment the Emcee (Josh Del Mundo) pokes his head through the curtains and bids "Willkommen," we know we've entered a different world. Heavy makeup, a devilish smile and playful songs create an atmosphere that is simultaneously funny, risqu and bizarre.

The setting is the seedy Kit Kat Klub in Berlin in 1931, where, the Emcee proclaims, "In here, life is beautiful... the girls are beautiful... even the orchestra is beautiful..." as a group of cross-dressing male musicians dance and play onstage.

No, we're not in Kansas anymore.

Fans of the long-running musical fall into two camps: those who love the 1972 movie by the same name, which starred Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and Michael York, and won eight Academy Awards (although losing out to the "Godfather" for best picture); and those who prefer the 1966 Broadway version, which won eight Tony Awards and later became the third longest-running revival in Broadway history (following "Oh! Calcutta!" and "Chicago").The WHS adaptation follows the '66 version, featuring the music of John Kander and Fred Ebb. It's a musical with a message for today: Intolerance can be ugly and spiral out of control.

The story begins with young American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Max Lerch) riding the train to Berlin, looking for inspiration to write his first novel. He meets an engaging German, Ernst Ludwig (Lorenzo Dominguez), who recommends a boardinghouse where Cliff can stay. Fraulein Schneider (Kim Chatterjee) asks for 100 marks rent for the room, but Cliff can only pay 50, so the landlady gives in with a delightful song "So What?" which sums up her philosophy on life.

Two other boarders at the house - Herr Schultz (Mario Rappa), an elderly Jewish fruit shop owner, and Fraulein Kost (Kim Dutrow), a lovable prostitute - provide many light moments at the always-busy house - particularly the fraulein's bedroom door.

Once settled in his new home, Cliff visits the Kit Kat Klub and meets British singer Sally Bowles (Lindsay McCargar), a dynamic spirit who is eager to talk with an English-speaking person, but warns, "Don't ask questions." Soon we get a glimpse of the storm clouds brewing in Germany when a waiter sings a patriotic song to the Fatherland "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." Life, we learn, is not so beautiful inside the club after all,

When Sally gets kicked out of her apartment and loses her job at the Kit Kat Klub, she convinces Cliff to let her live with him. From there, the relationships become more entangled and emotionally charged: Cliff falls in love and Sally reveals she's pregnant; Ernst hires Cliff to bring a suspicious suitcase back from Paris; Fraulein Kost has a relationship with seemingly every sailor in town; and Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz decide to marry until Ernst warns Schneider that it is not wise to marry a Jew. Humor of the first act takes a decidedly somber tone in the last act when bigotry and hatred build to a sobering conclusion.

Clearly, the strongest actor and singer in the musical is Chatterjee, who is totally convincing in appearance and German accent as Fraulein Schneider. She shows her vocal range and delicate touch on two duets with Rappa - "It Couldn't Please Me More" and "Married." She also demonstrates her powerful voice on the anguished "What Would You Do?" where she weighs her life as a survivor vs. the penalty she may pay if she marries Herr Schultz.

Del Mundo, a relative newcomer to theatre, plays the pivotal role as the Emcee who provides wry commentary throughout the show with great flair and charisma. This is his first WHS role since playing in M*A*S*H two years ago as a freshman, and he has a truly dynamic stage presence. He is especially funny singing "If You Could See Her (in my eyes,)" where he dances with a costumed gorilla ("she wouldn't look Jewish at all.") in this spoof on anti-Semitism and differences.

McCargar, a WHS veteran, plays the multi-layered Sally Bowles role well, providing just the right blend of bluster and blush when cuddling with Cliff. She saves just the right amount of energy to close with the signature song, "Cabaret" as the musical nears its poignant end.

Only a sophomore, Lerch does a credible job playing the shy American Cliff. He transforms from timid writer and Sally's love struck boyfriend to a man of principles, who stands up to the Nazis - and pays a price for it.

Rappa, in his 10th show, including fourth at WHS, speaks with a convincing Yiddish accent in handling the sensitive role as Herr Schultz. He's smitten with Fraulein Schneider - presenting her with a pineapple from his fruit stand - in one tender scene, and harmonizes well with Chatterjee.

Dutrow has some of the show's funniest moments as Fraulein Kost, the hooker who can't say no to the German Navy ("There are loads of patriotic boys; I have a duty.") And Dominguez is excellent as Ernst Ludwig - first an engaging companion and English student, and later a Swastika-wearing troublemaker.

Matthew Ballin, in his ninth year as head of the WHS theatre department, is triple credited as producer/director/scene designer. He and his team performed a minor miracle with "Cabaret" by completely transforming the WHS cafeteria into a theater, including stage, sets, lights, sound and seating. WHS doesn't have the resources for a major production like Starstruck or the arts magnet program at Irvington High School, so Ballin's crew of 21 actors/dancers/chorus compensates with energy and innovation. Historic video footage - and a surprise twist at the end - makes a powerful impact.

Chatterjee, McCarger, Dutrow, Dominguez, Alyssa Martell and Brittany Martinek give their final performances at Washington as graduating seniors. And the student orchestra, under the direction of WHS student Emily Khuc, has fun with the bouncy musical score, particularly on "The Money Song," where the chorus shines, too. Hats off to the stage crew which manages numerous heavy furniture set changes throughout the show.

Kudos to Ballin and his team for tackling an iconic musical in a converted cafeteria. The result is a fun, thought-provoking production. If you're looking for an entertaining evening, come to the "Cabaret."

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, May 21, 27, 28, 29
7 p.m.
Thursday Matinee (Half Price Performance), May 20
3:30 p.m.
Washington High School, Cafeteria
38442 Fremont Blvd., Fremont
(510) 505-7300 ext. 67512 - (11:00 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.)

Tickets: $6 - $15.00 (general seating)
All matinee tickets sold at the door

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