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Will Young Joins Sad Orgy as ‘Cabaret’ Loses Sex Appeal

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'Damned By Despair'
Sebastian Armesto in "Damned by Despair" by Tirso de Molina at the National Theatre. The Devil tells Paulo that his destiny is mysteriously linked with that of Enrico. Photographer: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg/National Theatre via Bloomberg

Oct. 15 (Bloomberg) -- It’s great to find buffed-up dancers in costumes so skimpy that they seem to defy the law of physics. It gives you something to think about when you get bored.

A production of “Cabaret” starring Will Young at London’s Savoy Theatre has a few dull stretches, so it’s nice to have a mental occupation to while away the time. Does anything ever pop out of the corsets? How do the tiny leather shorts stay up?

Sometimes one’s attention is diverted to the dramatic action instead, especially when theatrical grande dame Sian Phillips comes on stage. She plays Fraulein Schneider, a tough lady who runs a boarding house in 1930s Berlin. With a small shrug of her shoulders, Phillips suggests a world of weariness which hasn’t quite become cynicism.

One of her numbers is a terrific, laconic song called “So What?” Her voice is so wonderfully low and rough she could probably grate carrots on it.

Schneider falls in love with her Jewish boarder Herr Schultz (a very fine Linal Haft). When the Nazis suggest she should drop her marriage plans, she hasn’t the strength to fight back. Her farewell duet with Schultz, “Married,” is a highlight.

The rest of the show is about Cliff (sweetly played by Matt Rawle), a bisexual writer boarding at Schneider’s. He has an affair with cabaret singer Sally Bowles, and makes trips to the decadent Kit Kat Club presided over by Emcee (Will Young).

Pop Idol

Young, a former Pop Idol winner, has a great voice and his account of the landler “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is beautiful. He’s not a great actor though, and his attempts to match the sinister expressionistic performance of Joel Grey in the 1972 movie are effortful. The more he leers, smirks or shrieks, the less the overall effect.

Since soap star Michelle Ryan (Sally) hasn’t a note in her head, and wobbles alarmingly on all her big phrases, it makes for an underpowered evening overall.

Director Rufus Norris provides a simple set, just a bed and a table, for the boarding house, and some bright lights and a band for the Kit Kat Club. There’s a dispiriting lack of oomph in too many of the dialogue scenes, though the energy picks up in some club numbers.

The polymorphous-perverse “Two Ladies,” in which a bedtime romp gradually fills with more and more excitable participants, including a giraffe, is particularly amusing.

Choreographer Javier de Frutos dishes up “Chicago”-style moves which are efficient without offering much new. The dancers themselves perform it all gracefully, which is a plus.

Plus here, minus there. “Cabaret” should drip with sex, seediness, fear, decadence, and despair. Overall this one is more of a drip-dry affair. Rating: ***.

‘Damned by Despair’

There’s gloom aplenty over at the National Theatre in “Damned by Despair.” It’s caused by having to return after the interval to see the rest of it.

Tirso de Molina’s 1625 play, newly adapted here by Frank McGuinness, is a straightforward sermon on stage, free of dramatic conflict.

Religious hermit Paulo is told by an angel (actually the Devil in disguise) that he will share the fate of a man called Enrico in Naples. Paulo falls into despair after discovering that Enrico is a murdering, whoring, thieving thug.

The question motivating the drama is: Will the cardboard-cutout Paulo be saved or not?

The answer is: Who cares? And since it’s pretty obvious that the play is a mere excuse for repeating Catholic dogma about the benefits of repentance, it’s not hard to guess the outcome. The title gives you a whopping big clue, too.

It’s all the greater shame because the acting is good. Bertie Carvel, fresh from his triumph as the evil headmistress Agatha Trunchbull in “Matilda,” is Enrico, and he does a lovely turn in psychotic sadism.

Amanda Lawrence is a jokey Devil. Sebastian Armesto exudes religious ecstasy as Paulo. Director Bijan Sheibani sets the story in seedy modern Naples, and keeps the action (such as it is) moving swiftly.

Rating: **.

“Cabaret” is at the Savoy Theatre, Savoy Court, Charing Cross, WC2R 0EZ. Information: http://www.atgtickets.com or +44-844-871-7615.

“Damned by Despair” is in repertoire at the Olivier, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX. Information: http://www.nationatheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.

What the Stars Mean:
*****     Excellent
****      Very good
***       Average
**        Mediocre
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

Muse highlights include Jorg von Uthmann on Paris art, John Mariani on wine and Jeremy Gerard on New York theater.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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