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Sweet and Sour

Dancing despite the Nazis, the tawdry chorines of "Cabaret" provide a bracing alternative to "The Sound of Music"'s sugarcoated Trapps.

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I have scant use for site-specific stagings. Theater should free us from limiting literalness: A play about coal miners does not call for performing underground; a drama about psychotics needs no cast of certified psychos in a genuine madhouse. The stage is privileged to deal in illusions, allowing us to gaze deeper and see more clearly from the outside looking in than we ever could mired in the mêlée. So I question converting the Henry Miller Theatre into the Kit Kat Klub for Cabaret, complete with poorer sight lines, buttock-bruising wooden chairs, and tables for overpriced and distracting drinks.

Otherwise, the Roundabout is to be roundly applauded for re-creating Sam Mendes’s 1993 London production, even if with some diminishment. Robert Brill resuscitates a two-tiered set, part jungle gym, part bulb-bordered and crooked picture frame around the band, part plain platform with minimal and easily removable furniture backed by three ominous doors. All very functional but also eye-catching. Joe Masteroff’s refurbished book emphasizes the squalor of 1930 Berlin nightlife and the bisexuality of Clifford, the writer hero. Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari’s razzle-dazzle lighting caps the razzmatazz, though I wonder whether William Ivey Long’s suitably tawdry costumes need be so bedraggled: The chorines’ stockings feature more holes than a Swiss cheese, more runs than Mickey Mantle could amass at his apogee.

Mendes, aided by Rob Marshall as co-director and choreographer, confirms his directorial reputation with the nightclub scenes but does less for the goings-on at Fräulein Schneider’s boardinghouse. This is partly because nightclub-site-specificity thwarts boardinghouse specificity, but partly also because the writing does not allow for much character development in either the Sally Bowles-Clifford Bradshaw central affair or the secondary romance of Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, her greengrocer suitor.

The major performances are all at least a mite off. Natasha Richardson is--at last!--an authentically British Sally Bowles, but she is stolid, blatant, lacking in girlish vulnerability. Both Mary Louise Wilson (Schneider) and Ron Rifkin (Schultz) have accent problems, and the delightful Miss Wilson plays a bit too much for comedy, the good Mr. Rifkin a bit too little. John Benjamin Hickey, though aptly ambiguous sexually, comes up short on whatever would draw Sally to him. As the sinister, leering Emcee, Alan Cumming (repeating his London role) is just fine except in his song “I Don’t Care Much” -- a questionable number written for the movie version.

The supporting cast -- notably Denis O’Hare, Fred Rose, and Michele Pawk -- delivers staunchly, and Mendes’s idea of making the chorines double as members of the onstage band is terrific, including that final touch when they appear wearing identical Louise Brooksian Lulu wigs. Such double duty is quite an accomplishment: Whether they lend a whiff of George Grosz to the orchestra or twist themselves into Marshall’s burlesque choreography, these young ladies rate unstinting kudos. Shortcomings notwithstanding, this revival of the Masteroff-Kander-Ebb Cabaret has enough to satisfy all but the most fastidious -- the kind that wouldn’t stoop to a Broadway musical in the first place.

Curiously, the other big current revival, The Sound of Music, also involves Nazism in the ascendant. For the rest, this brimmingly wholesome family entertainment is the exact opposite of Cabaret. The birth of the Trapp Family Singers out of the spirit of music (as Nietzsche would have titled it) is the most saccharine of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, even as the book is the least stimulating of the Lindsay and Crouse collaborations.

Still, there are ways of preventing this honeyed confection from becoming pure treacle. In the Broadway premiere (1959), Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel saw to that; in the movie version, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer contributed, respectively, zeal and edge enough to energize the show out of its sweet sappiness. This revival, directed by Susan H. Schulman, has other ideas. Repeated expeditions to Salzburg have taught the director that (a) nuns spend their days working at useful tasks and (b) many Austrians took to Nazism enthusiastically. So we get enough Stakhanovite nuns to rival Disney’s workaholic dwarfs. Huge swastika banners incarnadine woodsy Salzburg, making the green one red. Heidi Ettinger’s set design cuts corners until we get the wedding scene in Nonnberg Abbey, whose minutely reproduced splendors could make the Vatican envious.

In the performances, rewards are sparse. The Maria of Rebecca Luker, pretty and sweet-voiced, is not the robustious tomboy who could galvanize the Trapp children out of their torpor and charm Captain von Trapp out of his military rigor. Indeed, the rigor Michael Siberry’s Captain evinces perilously resembles rigor mortis; it would take two of him rubbed together to strike a spark. The children are conventionally appealing, the tiniest as cute as a lederhosen button, and Tracy Alison Walsh, as the bespectacled Brigitta, better than that. As the Mother Abbess, the decent Patti Cohenour cannot hold a candle to Patricia Neway’s 1959 prototype, but the total disaster is the Max of Fred Applegate, who can instantly turn the Alps into Catskills. The absolute winner is the Elsa Schraeder of Jan Maxwell, whose unstrained professionalism turns an unsympathetic secondary part into the show’s single star turn.

Regrettably, Miss Schulman tries, in various details, to emulate the movie version. But such a thing as Maria’s entrance strolling down the hillside, though fine in a helicopter shot letting the mountains dance around the girl, cannot be duplicated onstage. Miss Ettinger’s delectable curtain (no one designs curtains better than she) does not rise on an equally delectable production, but parents no more demanding than their brood may feel that the bloom is not yet off the edelweiss.

The other young Irish dramatist, Conor McPherson, debuts here with the cryptically entitled St. Nicholas, which might as easily be called Chaconne for Invisible Orchestra or Study in Puce. The first ten minutes, and a few subsequent ones, mock a drama critic and are capital fun. The rest concerns said Dublin critic’s trip to London in pursuit of an actress, and his entanglement there with a bunch of vampires. Thus is a Richard Brinsley Sheridan start reduced to Sheridan Le Fanu. Still, this 90-minute one-man show may be worth it for Brian Cox. Though despair at his material sometimes makes him bellow, he gives a bravura performance that transmutes pointlessness into poignancy.


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