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Her shoulders arched, her eyes a sniper’s stare, Karson St. John stalks the stage like a linebacker who just made a game-saving tackle. She plays the Emcee in Cygnet Theatre’s Cabaret, a casting choice that raised eyebrows when announced, but that makes all kinds of sense. For starters, she doesn’t try to be Joel Grey, who put such a stamp on the role, people often refer to him — “you know, Joel Grey’s character?” — rather than the Emcee. Grey’s astonishing performance lurks behind all Emcees, of course, but St. John gender-bends the other way: she makes the role more obviously masculine, more butch’d up, and does some stamping — and stomping — of her own.

Critics have called the Emcee a metaphor for the rise of the Third Reich (Hal Prince, original director, said the same about the cabaret in general). Metaphors are flashy but awfully abstract. St. John’s performance — and Grey’s, for that matter — is much more immediate: black half-moons sag beneath her eyes, as if she never sleeps, and reveal the skull behind the skin; she rarely leaves the stage (and doesn’t exist beyond the footlights?), smirking, when not performing, at the folly of others. If an analogy’s needed, St. John’s Emcee resembles a hyper-jaded Puck, who took a crash-course in misanthropy and finds confirmation — what fools these mortals be! — everywhere she/he turns.

Cygnet’s opening night had stumbles. The five-piece band often drowned out the singers, not all the accents rang true, and a key performance was a puzzle. At the same time, the Sean Murray–directed production also had marvels.

A first look at Sean Fanning’s set tips the production’s hand. Instead of perky colors and showbiz élan, grime-stained walls, tawdry glitter curtains, and faded paint reveal that this Kit Kat Klub isn’t a fashionable watering hole where the moneyed dally with decadence. The joint is long in the tooth. Nobody’s slumming here. It’s a place (reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real) where people go who are already gone. The party’s over; the remaining guests are just too spent to make it home.

To draw a comparison between 1929–1930 Germany and the 1960s — Cabaret was first produced in 1966 — original set designer Boris Aronson placed a huge mirror above the stage so the audience could watch itself become complicit. Fanning’s set puts the five-piece band above and has the Kit Kat Klub surround the playing space. As the musical grows more and more evil, the space almost seems to shrink.

This choice deftly underscores Cabaret’s approach. In Act One, people bond: Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw come together, as do Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. In Act Two, the viral spread of anti-Semitism and fascism severs loving relations. Throughout, much like a Greek chorus, the Emcee and dancers comment on the action. But with a difference: Greek choruses merely observe; this one grows and seethes and stifles the hopes and lives of those outside the club. In effect, the chorus usurps center-stage.

And entraps it. As when St. John sings “If You Could See Her (Through My Eyes)” about a gorilla (“I guarantee you would fall like I did).” It resembles a goofy burlesque, until the last line. Same with one of the — if not the — ugliest pretty song in musical theatre. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is so Sound of Music–y sweet, it invites you to sing along, ride the pride. Jacob Caltrider caps the number with such a clean, innocent-sounding tenor, one almost forgets that this anthem about the Third Reich points to the Holocaust.

Sean Murray gives the musical a balance I’ve rarely seen in previous Cabarets, which often get staged as star vehicles (for Grey and Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles). Thus, the Sally/Cliff pairing becomes part of a much larger whole, and — a smart emphasis — Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz’s budding love receives full play. In a performance that grows completely from within, Linda Libby almost steals the show as the prudish landlady who warms to love (her singing of “What Would You Do?” is a wonder). Jim Chovick’s gentle Schultz, the German Jew greengrocer, makes them a touching tandem. In the end, it’s hard to say what’s more painful, their breakup or his persistent denial of reality.

Clifford Bradshaw’s a tricky read. He’s based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and, in effect, is Isherwood’s hard-to-pinpoint proxy. Dressed for an Arrow shirt commercial, Charlie Reuter sings well and does what he can with the stencil-thin part. As Sally, on opening night Joy Yandell was a puzzle. Like Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, who was not a good singer, Yandell had vocal problems (couldn’t push when necessary) and had yet to ingrain Sally’s rage. One expected more from this Craig Noel Award–winner.

If there were a real Kit Kat Klub, David Brannen’s excellent, sexually explicit choreography might have shocked the Klub’s allegedly jaded clientele. Like the Cygnet production in general, the dance numbers don’t dabble with illusions. Same with Shirley Pierson’s armada of accurate, trashy costumes and Peter Herman’s excellent wigs and often streaking make-up. In many ways, Cygnet’s is an ensemble Cabaret. The only real “star,” in the end, is the black hole of fascism. ■

Cabaret, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Joe Masteroff

Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town

Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Joyelle Cabato, Linda Libby, Jacob Caltrider, Marlene Montes, Jim Chovick, Rose O’Hara, Andy Collins, Charlie Reuter, Melissa Fernandes, Karson St. John, Jason Heil, Katie Whalley, Eric Hellmers, Joy Yandell, Tony Houck; scenic design, Sean Fanning, costumes, Shirley Pierson, lighting, Chris Rynne, sound, Matt Lescault-Wood, George Ye, musical director, Billy Thompson, choreographer, David Brannen

Playing through May 22; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525

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Comments

jlmiller2 April 23, 2011 @ 10:09 a.m.

I attended the play on opening night also. I was very pleased with the way Cabaret was done. I loved the set and the costumes, together they really gave one a feel of a past it's prime club in the Berlin of the Wiemar Republic. Karson St. John was marvelous as the Emcee. Jim Chovik's denial was a perfect portrayal of the feeling of German Jews of the era. My only problem with the review is that of Joy Yandell's performance. She sounded pretty bad in her final song. But that is the way it was supposed to be. She was now back in the club, out of her dreamlike life with Cliff. I could feel her sorrow and defeat as she struggled to get through the song. If you have not seen this one you should try and attend a performance. I will be going back to see it again at least one more time.

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