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"Cabaret:" A Smashing Musical at Little Theatre

Cabaret" is a very difficult musical to do well, yet The Little Theatre of Alexandria is doing it very well indeed through Aug. 14. Its success is attributable to a strong cast and design team assembled by producer Mary Beth Smith-Toomey, but specific kudos must be directed at four participants in particular: Director Frank D. Shutts II and actors Doug Sanford, Karen Jadlos Shotts and Tom Flatt. The substantial production also benefits from fine design work and solid musical support from the on-stage band led by

Musical Director Christopher A. Tomasino.

The show began life as a big success on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for best musical in 1967 as well as a Tony for its composer and lyricist, John Kander and Fred Ebb. That production ran nearly three years. In 1972, a movie version won a slew of Oscars, including one each for Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. Its most recent revival on Broadway earned the Tony Award for best revival in 1998 and ran even longer than the original — a total of over five years, placing it in the list of the 20 longest running musicals in Broadway history.

Each director who has approached the work (and these have included the legendary Hal Prince and Bob Fosse, as well as the Tony Nominated Sam Mendes) has brought a fresh approach, but each has found the heart of the piece. For this new production, Frank Shutts and the Little Theatre of Alexandria use much of the streamlined script from the most recent revival but retain some elements of the original as well.

Clearly, Shutts not only found the heart of the piece, he found the way to translate that into a tremendously entertaining and ultimately affecting piece of musical theater.

SET IN BERLIN IN the 1930s as the Nazis are coming to power, the show alternates between the entertainment being provided in one of Berlin's famous decadent cabarets of the day, the shabby "Kit Kat Klub," and the drab everyday world in a rooming house where an American writer takes up residence as he gets to know Berlin as research for a novel. The link between the two locations is a singer at the club who lives with the writer.

Sanford is a chillingly effective master of ceremonies at the club (the "Emcee"), an androgynous figure selling the sex and song routines of the nightclub acts, each of which is really a comment on the real world of pre-World War II Germany. He booms out the club songs with a demonic energy.

In spite of all of the up-tempo material that Sanford handles with such energy, it is his menacingly quiet intensity for the song "I Don't Care Much" that really makes his performance special. His performance of this song, which was cut from the original production but restored in the revival, is one of the best sung individual songs to be performed on a local stage in quite some time.

While numbers like "Wilkommen," "Money," "Two Ladies" or "Don't Tell Mamma" may seem innocuous club songs, no one can miss the impact of the Emcee singing about his love with the tag line "If you could see her through my eyes she wouldn't look Jewish at all!"

That moment, as starkly disturbing as it is, is not the strongest emotional jolt in the show. There's also Karen Jadlos Schotts' heart-rending delivery of the anthem-like title song, especially when she says of her friend Elsie "she was the happiest corpse I've ever seen" and then declares that "When I go, I'm gonna go like Elsie."

Shotts' role is of the English cabaret singer who doesn't know she lacks the talent to make it anywhere but in a dive like the "Kit Kat Klub." It is a role that presents a unique challenge. It has a number of songs that must be delivered effectively without making it seem that the character has more talent than she has.

Shotts finds the balance, making her song from the club "Don't Tell Momma" seem an up-tempo trifle, but giving more substance to the song she sings with the youthfully charming James Finley as the writer in his room, "Perfectly Marvelous." Then she unleashes pure emotion in the title song which reveals her final determination to ignore the very real danger of the coming war to pursue her "career."

The sub-plot of an elderly couple, one Jewish and one not, presents the full voiced Amy Conley as "Fraulein Schneider" and Tom Flatt who both acts and sings with impact as her suitor "Herr Shultz." Flatt's performance provides the heft to make the sub-plot a moving compliment to the main story, which is one reason that Cabaret is both such a difficult piece to do and so affecting when it is as well done as it is done here.