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Original Sins

Cinnabar's staging of 'Cabaret' transcends

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Cinnabar Theater is gone. That is, the inside of the little red theater on the hill in Petaluma is gone. What has replaced it, rearranging a number of the seats in the process, is the Kit Kat Klub, the notorious Berlin nightspot from Masteroff, Kander and Ebb's 1967 musical, Cabaret.

In the Cinnabar's sharp, sexy, inventive new staging of that classic show, directors Elly Lichenstein and Nancy Prebilich have transformed the theater into a slightly creepy 1939 nightclub, complete with tables adorned with telephones (so visitors can pretend to call other visitors to offer sultry propositions, something the actors occasionally do) and a number of roving Kit Kat Boys, German-accented waiters in fishnets and makeup, wearing existentially bored expressions and skimpy torso-exposing aprons, who wander the club preshow to take drink orders and flirt with the women and men filing in to take their seats.

The play is essentially a love story, set in pre-WW II Berlin as rumblings of danger pop up here and there but are largely ignored by the heads-in-the-sand singers and dancers at the Kit Kat Klub, where "Everything is beautiful!" Actually, it is two love stories. Uptight American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Chris Koval) has fallen for an unstable English actress, Sally Bowles (the magnificent co-director Nancy Prebilich), the Kit Kat's star. Complicating their relationship is the vaguely criminal Ernst Ludwig (Robert Dornaus), who comes to Cliff for English lessons, but appears to be interested in more.

The other relationship is between Cliff's middle-aged landlady, the moralistic but pragmatic Fraulein Schneider (Joan Hawley) and Herr Schultz (Dwayne Stincelli, marvelous in this role), a lonely Jewish fruit seller whose idea of courtship involves the gifting of pineapples.

As these relationships evolve, we can't escape the pull of the Klub, where the emcee rules the show, escorting us through a parade of human vice and decadence, with such songs as "Money, Money," "Two Ladies" and, of course, the show-starting (and -stopping) "Willkommen." As played by Greg Grabow, the emcee is less overtly sinister than in other productions, but his play-all-sides ambiguity and his aggressive blankness make him genuinely frightening--and very, very funny.

Now, here's my confession: I've never been crazy about Cabaret.

Every stage production I've ever seen has been unable to effectively blend the various elements of the script. Usually, the bittersweet sentimentality of the Herr Schulz/Fraulein Schneider storyline is at odds with the darker stuff emerging from the other love affairs, often seeming as if it was written for an entirely different musical. And, with a number of tiny characters appearing to speak a few lines before disappearing forever, many Cabaret productions seem top-heavy with actors and faces, unable to figure out what to do with everyone.

While I have a few small quibbles with this production, Lichenstein and Prebilich have solved the plot problems by reducing the cast to a manageable and versatile troupe of supporting players (mainly the Kit Kat Boys) who each take on a number of other small roles. For once, the love stories are tonally balanced and work together as two varieties of a similar heartbreak.

As the story moves toward tragedy, as the rise of Nazis can no longer be ignored, the production becomes increasingly surreal, and the final moments are genuinely chilling. By the end, as Bowles takes the spotlight to reprise the titular number ("Life is a cabaret"), it is no longer possible to believe that "everything is beautiful," but in this first-rate Cabaret, it is quite possible to be dazzled just the same.


'Cabaret' runs through Oct. 9, with remaining shows Sept. 17-18, 23-26, Oct. 1-3 and 7-10. Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. $28-$30. 707.763.8920.

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From the September 15-21, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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