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Center Stage

Grunge rather than glitz

2/24/2016

Broadway tends to bloat, going for overkill as in “Phantom of the Opera.” “Cabaret,” though, recently scored the opposite kind of success. The 1967 original gave us the movie — winning Liza Minelli an Oscar — but a reboot in the ’90s went for grunge rather than glitz.

“Cabaret.” Civic Center, www.desmoinesperformingarts.org. Tuesday – Saturday, March 1-5, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5, 2 p.m.; Sunday, March 6, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.

“Cabaret.” Civic Center, www.desmoinesperformingarts.org. Tuesday – Saturday, March 1-5, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5, 2 p.m.; Sunday, March 6, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.

The Emcee, in particular, was brought down several pegs. In this version, he did without a tuxedo, flouncing around half-naked, his nipples painted red.

“The whole thing was stripped raw. It came closer to the truth of that time,” according to Randy Harrison, who plays the role on the current tour.

A dark truth indeed. Harrison’s character ends up in concentration-camp stripes, yet when the great Kander-Ebb tunes got a new look, they loosened up as well.  The rewrite is designed for a café set, as if the audience has come to Berlin’s Kit Kat Club one night about 1930.  The music is live, played onstage, and at times the band joins in with the singing, bumping and grinding. “Wilkommen,” the number Harrison calls “maybe the greatest opener for a musical ever,” comes across as especially lascivious and lots of fun.

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“The era was one of open thinking, even chaotic. Every moment felt full of urgency,” says Harrison.

The show’s female leads embody that openness and urgency. Sally Bowles, in the Minelli role, has the more spectacular love-life and the show-stopping title number. The actress on tour, Andrea Goss, sets Harrison gushing. “Incredible, incredible,” he says, pointing out that on Broadway, Goss was understudy to Michelle Williams (“Shutter Island” and other movies). Yet he also praises Shannon Cochrane as the older Fraulein Schneider.

“She and the fruitseller — Schultz — have given up on love, but everything changes, in the upheavals of that era,” Harrison says.

Since Schneider is Christian and Schultz is a Jew, for them, the upheavals end badly. He, too, wears camp stripe  in the play’s final shadows — one of several changes in lighting that, almost by themselves, create set changes. The current director, BT McNicholl, understands that the show’s fresh impact depends a lot on the interplay of dark and light.

“Every new venue we come to, the light check’s as important as the soundcheck. What the audience sees keeps shifting,” says Harrison.

These small shifts are paired with minimal costume changes — “Cabaret” travels light for a hit show. Yet the tour never actually plays in a café. In Des Moines, too, the Emcee and his Kit Kat cuties will lack the intimacy of the recent local production in the Social Club Basement. At the Civic Center, though, from time to time the players will come off stage. Out in the auditorium, they’ll dance and flirt.

“Our energy feeds off that give and take — our improvisation with the audience. We want their response. We want them in the moment,” says Harrison,

Overheard in the Lobby: At Noce, Des Moines Onstage continues its high-energy “Murder Ballad” through Feb. 27. Shows begin late, 9 p.m. Up in Ankeny, “Some Sweet Day” plays through the Feb. 28. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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