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A Night Out in Madrid: "Cabaret" in Spanish

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The cast of Cabaret.

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome to the Teatro Rialto, home to the Kit Kat Klub. We have no troubles here -- except for inopportune casting, but we'll get to that later. Life is beautiful. The sets are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful. Indeed, the very thing we lack is a grit that can make even the beautiful ugly.

Madrid's Spanish production of Cabaret is a cute attempt at the bawdy classic, innocent in its emptiness. The show's pitfalls seem paradoxical in a post-Franco Spain, where exhibitionism, sexuality, and pornography mark every corner. But it's true: Cabaret requires a deviance that penetrates deep, and Teatro Rialto's ensemble seems intent on barely scraping the surface.

Of course, it's interesting to see Cabaret realized in a different language, one that -- at least in general esteem -- holds a lot more romance than English and German combined. However, because the narrative remains unaltered, the change in tongues mandates impeccable acting for the likes of Sally Bowles and Cliff Bradshaw, both of whom are direct manifestations of their national, anglo cultures.

And then there are the larger symbolisms of Cabaret, so relevant to our increasingly hostile and polarized global identity and so poignant when delivered with care. On the eve of Nazi Germany, not everything can be beautiful, and the Kit Kat Klub represents all that is good and bad about Berlin in one slice of life. It is nationalistic songs turned frigid and frightening, sex gone stiff, and ignorance with a less than blissful result.

These are the stakes of Cabaret -- much higher than your average happy-go-lucky sing-along -- and they must be respected to do Joe Masteroff's book justice. Sadly, at the theater on Gran Vía, a perfectly crafted recipe of celebrity, talent, and decadence doesn't add up to emotional impact.

Castaño singing the titular song from Cabaret.

The main issue comes from our leading lady -- Cristina Castaño -- who plays Sally. Castaño is wonderfully talented, with a booming voice that would suit most any musical, but Sally is not the part for her. She is much too sensual, too sure of herself. What makes Sally so captivating is that beneath her bubbly appeal is crippling insecurity and anxiety; after all, behind every sex symbol is a backstory. Sally is manic, distressed, desperate, fickle, damaged. She's lovably, annoyingly, starkly so, and she makes even the hottest mess seem together in comparison.

Emma Stone as Sally Bowles.

Castaño is much too tidy as Sally. She's a siren, but that's all. Her character isn't the 19-year-old girl lost in a Wonderland of tumultuous nights and regretful days; instead, she's a developed, self-assured woman. It seems rational for her to move in with Cliff, rational for her to fall in love, and rational for her to have an abortion and stay in Berlin. Every decision is based in logic, the antithesis of Sally's drive. And because of this rationality, the character loses her few shocking words of wisdom, which blend in with her banter.

Soto in Cabaret's opening number.

The Master of Ceremonies doesn't help, either. As the Emcee, Edu Soto is tasked with carrying the show. He owns the stage and may do whatever he likes with it. In return, it is his job to make us laugh, but also he must horrify us, over and over, in moments of (dis)quiet.

Soto does neither. His audience rarely chuckles along with him, and his one-dimensional performance lends little to gawk at. He is a clown. A clown, with a painted face and gimmicks, but nothing else.

Joel Grey as the Emcee.

Contrast that with Alan Cumming, who brought the Emcee into the 21st century, and you notice what Soto is missing. When Cumming portrays the Host, he is sweet and slimy, charming and demonic. He's like a creature you study from afar, constructing his story from only the few crumbs of information sketched onto his face. He embodies your wildest, most titillating fantasies and your most abhorred nightmares. This is what Soto needs to learn: to be a phantom instead of a jester.

Alan Cumming in "Willkommen."

Nevertheless, some of the actors do merit recognition. Marta Ribera's Fräulein Schneider is especially noteworthy. Ribera was awarded the Gran Vía Prize for musical theater because of her own interpretation of Sally eight years ago, so she's very familiar with Cabaret. Yes, she's young for Schneider, but that doesn't matter. She brings urgency and vulnerability to the cynical old woman, and if anyone in the cast captures the horrific conditions of pre-World War II Germany, it is her and Enrique R. Del Portal, who does a convincing Herr Schultz. Still, they cannot make up for what else is missing.

As the curtain closed, my seatmate turned to me and remarked that he thought the show was too political. This took me aback -- art can never be too political, just as politics can never be too artful, and if we are to look at the political, it should be through something as evocative as art. No, the problem was that this version of Cabaret is not political enough -- it craves the immediacy that politics has. It does not send us into a rage. It does not make us clutch our gut, cringing. It does not force tears out of our ducts, and it does not make us think about our own ignorance with anger and shame.

And so, the show is good. But it is not Cabaret.