By Kathie Isaac-Luke

For The Union Democrat

Now playing at Sierra Repertory Theatre’s East Sonora Theater is an evocative production of the Kander and Ebb musical, “Cabaret.”

This play has gone through many transformations since its inception, from the 1951 play, “I Am A Camera” to the original 1966 Broadway production, to the award winning 1972 movie. Through all of these embodiments, it has kept the essence of its source material, Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories,” which were set in the late 1920s just as the Third Reich was rising. For those who have only seen the movie, this stage production will be a new experience, at once stunning, riveting and eerily relevant.

As the play begins, the Emcee welcomes the audience with his worldly rendition of “Wilkommen,”accompanied by the cabaret performers. The Emcee is central to the play as he guides us through its trajectory with bawdy songs, skits and sardonic commentary. He is played by SRT Marketing Director Jerry Lee, as you have never seen him before. The versatile Lee takes this role and makes it his own. Instead of projecting menace, his Emcee is played as nonchalant and slightly smug, with many comic overtones. It is a remarkable and memorable performance.

Kyle Smith plays Clifford Bradshaw and perfectly captures his character’s steadfast determination. He is first seen on a train arriving in Berlin as an observer gathering material for a novel. But, we soon learn that he has other reasons to seek out the edgy and libertine atmosphere of the city. On the train, he meets Ernst Ludwig, a German of mysterious means, who finds lodging for Cliff and hires him as an English tutor. It is Ludwig, confidently played by Ben Stasny, who directs his new friend to the Kit Kat Club, which will figure prominently in his stay.

Cliff wastes no time in going to the seedy nightclub where he first encounters the impetuous Sally Bowles. Jackie Vanderbeck gives a captivating performance as Bowles, the young British singer whose aspirations are bigger than her talent. She is immediately attracted to Cliff and soon talks her way into his room and his heart.

The first act of the play focuses on the romantic entanglements of two sets of couples. Sally and Cliff have fallen in love, and there is hope that they may have a future together, if either can overcome their past. And, Fräulein Schneider, the staid proprietor of the boarding house where Cliff and Sally live, had seemingly resigned herself to a solitary life. But things take a decidedly brighter turn when she timidly enters into a relationship with Herr Schultz, a warm and generous fruit vendor, who happens to be Jewish.

In a marvelous performance as the brash Fräulein Kost, SRT favorite Emily Gatesman is almost unrecognizable. Sporting platinum hair and exchanging in clever banter, Kost entertains a series of sailors in her room, much to the chagrin of her landlady. She further infuriates the older woman by telling her they are “sisters under the skin.”

Dianne Manaster is brilliant as Fräulein Schneider, and as Herr Schultz, Marc Geller gives a touching and credible performance. The couple’s tentative moves at courtship are captured with charm in the musical numbers, “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” and “Married.” Throughout the play’s beginnings, the characters go about their activities trying to have a good time while blocking out the omens that foreshadow what is to come. The first act ends on a sinister note that signifies their world is about to change in a fundamental way.

As the political situation deteriorates, the characters must make decisions as to their plans for the future. When her character believes her chances for happiness have been thwarted, Manaster’s delivery is heartbreaking as she sings, “What Would You Do?” And staying behind for an uncertain future, Vanderbeck sings a powerful version of “Cabaret,” as the devastated Sally Bowles.

Rounding out the cast are Caitlin Rae Campbell, Marissa Mayer, Nicole Stouffer, Kelli Brock, Charles Bostick, Matt Alpert and Yusef Lambert. These accomplished members of the ensemble work beautifully together. Several play multiple roles, and their skill and enthusiasm is evident. With its intriguing subplots and thoroughly developed characters, “Cabaret” is a rich and complex play. Under Scott Viets’ dynamic direction the entire company is outstanding, the music indelible and the choreography by Bryan Knowlton inventive.

All of the design elements are excellent from the imaginative set design by Michael Kramer to the period costumes by B. Benjamin Weigel. The lighting by Peter Leibold captures the many moods of the play, and the sound design by Tatiana Covington-Parra is impressive.

“Cabaret” plays through Oct. 27. SRT has rated this production PG13. For tickets or more information, go online to www.sierrarep.org, or call (209) 532-3120.

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