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The national tour of the Broadway hit comes to the Maryland Theatre

May 16, 2002|BY KEVIN CLAPP

Bathed in shadow, you turn away from the rain and enter the nearest doorway. In a blink, you are surrounded by a bacchanalian underworld of debauchery, sex, booze and drugs, all keeping time to a musical beat.

Life may indeed be a cabaret, old chum, but odds are you've never before settled into a stageside chair like this.

Gritty, sensuous, risqu ... the play cordially invites you to join the denizens of the Kit Kat Club, as imagined on The Maryland Theatre stage for two shows Sunday night.

But be forewarned: Patrons looking to soak up the Technicolor pop of the 1972 Academy Award-winning film should look elsewhere.

This "Cabaret," as envisioned by director Sam Mendes of "American Beauty" fame, is dark and provocative, a fishnets-and-all rendering of a love story set against the backdrop of Germany as the Third Reich is gaining power.

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"This isn't your mother's 'Cabaret'," says Christopher Sloan, who plays the Emcee in the touring version of the Tony Award-winning revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb's musical.

"It is risqu but by no means gratuitous," Sloan says from his hotel room in Corning, N.Y. "It's not just shocking to be shocking. There is meaning behind everything, and I think that's what people appreciate."

Zigzagging across the country for eight months, the national tour of "Cabaret" has entered its homestretch. After another month, this roving Kit Kat Club will close its doors for a spell even as the Broadway revival that spawned it continues at New York City's Studio 54.

"Cabaret is one of a kind and it has gone through such an evolution," says actress Allison Pratt. As Sally Bowles, she is one half of the musical's centerpiece romance between an English woman and an American writer.

"It's a piece, it's a movement, it's a play with music," Pratt says. "It's going to shock you, it might make you squirm in your seat but it is an experience."

Drawn to the character of Bowles, complete with flaws and insecurities, Pratt's exposure to the show included college study of the original. It wasn't until December 2000 that she saw the revival, featuring Gina Gershon as Bowles.

What struck her was not so much the performance but the character.

"There is no role like Sally Bowles," Pratt says. "Sally Bowles doesn't want to know who she is and tries to run away from that."

Sloan first appeared as an extra during a college performance of the original Broadway production. Having experienced both new and old, he says it is no contest as to which he prefers.

"It's a more realistic version because 'Cabaret' up to this point, has kind of been an idealistic version of Germany in 1929: Clean and sparkly and everybody happy," Sloan says. "Historically, it was not like that. These were hard times. There was drug use, there was sexual debauchery. This version explores that."

Both actors enjoy the freedom and flexibility their roles provide, feeding off audience energy and letting the tenor of the crowd inform their performance on any given night.

As for inhabiting roles made famous by the likes of Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, Alan Cumming and Molly Ringwald, among others, neither Sloan nor Pratt are overly concerned, in part because so much of what they do is informed by audience interaction.

"People will have a preconceived notion of what a character should do and be. ... There's no way I could ever change peoples perceptions of Alan Cumming or Joel Grey," Sloan says. "It would be foolish to try."

So, night by night, the cast rolls into a new town to immerse themselves anew in the splendid disarray that is the Kit Kat Club.

When this "Cabaret" closes its doors for good, both actors will retreat to New York and mull their next career moves.

But right now there are still songs to be sung, and while Sloan and Pratt may marvel at the resilience of "Cabaret," it does not at all surprise them.

"It wasn't all a happy place. People just wanted to forget about things for awhile and along with that came a darker side of life, and our show tackles it," Sloan says. "People are going to come to see 'Cabaret' regardless because of the power of the story and music, but what has changed is the interpretation and people will embrace the show."

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