Photo by Neal Preston

IT'S ABSOLUTELY UNTRUE THAT BRITISH DIRECTOR Sam Mendes' much-heralded “reinvention” of Masteroff, Kander and Ebb's musical Cabaret is gutsy, as the reviews from three different cities tend to suggest. (The production was born in London's Donmar Warehouse in 1993 and later — after it had transferred to the Henry Miller Theater and Studio 54, featuring Natasha Richardson — became the talk of New York. A touring version with Teri Hatcher, in her stage debut, is currently on view at the Wilshire Theater in Beverly Hills.) It may be brazen, but that's very different from being brave.

The story — set in 1930 and adapted from Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories and John van Druten's Broadway hit adaptation, I Am a Camera — concerns a writer from America named Clifford Bradshaw (in van Druten's play, he's English and is tellingly named Chris) who is struggling as much artistically as financially, and who hopes to brush away his creative cobwebs by hanging out for a while in Berlin.

The German social fabric is in tatters, rather like the German economy; inflation and starvation are rampant, and National Socialism is on the rise. It is against this backdrop that Bradshaw (Rick Holmes) frequents a lurid cabaret called the Kit Kat Club, a front for prostitution, where he befriends a British headliner of dubious talent and questionable integrity named Sally Bowles (Hatcher), whom her English friends might call a free spirit or a slag, depending on their mood. Sooner than later, Bowles is sharing Bradshaw's threadbare room, though he mostly ducks her amorous advances.

In I Am a Camera, Chris' sexual reluctance strikes an ambiguous chord, perhaps merely a variation on the theme of No Sex Please, We're British. But Cabaret in general, and Mendes' rendition in particular, brings the writer out of the closet. In fact, Mendes' Kit Kat Club is cloaked in the smoke of homoerotic debauchery, along with other “forbidden” proclivities — from a shadow-play depiction of sodomy and fist-fucking, to Norbert Leo Butz's tattooed and pierced-nippled MC, to the lithe dancers costumed by William Ivey Long as though from the Pleasure Chest, in frilly silk undies, black leather jackets, high heels, garter belts and fishnet stockings. They glare and sneer (and may even hiss), turning their backs on us, legs apart, before glancing over their shoulders and slapping their buttocks. (Cynthia Onrubia and Rob Marshall are both credited with the choreography.) One song has Bowles dressed as a schoolgirl perched on a kind of highchair — a child molester's wet dream.

Bowles gets pregnant and unpregnant, Bradshaw's landlady (Barbara Andres) marries a sweet Jewish fruit seller (Dick Latessa), and then the Brown Shirts arrive, singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — never a good omen, that song. As in the New York staging, the interior of the L.A. venue has been re-configured with benches and table seatings for four, in order to replicate the cabaret ambiance. Robert Brill's set is a double-tiered iron-grid affair, which allows the action to pop up all over the place, keeping things lively.

But there's a hole in the bucket, and it's not Hatcher's vacuous performance as Bowles. (Hatcher has charisma and baby-doll beauty aplenty, but little in the way of style — an obvious consequence of her lack of stage training. Her gestures have a cinematic subtlety that simply doesn't read in this Broadway-size house; her singing voice is remedial, while her line readings — though certainly animated — feel generic rather than nuanced.) Nor does the heart of the problem lie with Butz's unremarkable though capable MC, or with an ensemble that fails somehow to ignite (through no fault of those terrific dancers). Latessa and Jeanine Morick, as the hooker down the hall, possess the only great voices in this company.

Despite these impediments, the stage pictures are appealing enough to entertain even the most jaded spectator. Entertain, but not provoke — and therein lies the problem. While most critics have found Mendes' concept shocking and fresh, this production is really only one or two degrees lustier than a Victoria's Secret fashion show — all saucy stares and titillating costumes — and just barely coated with end-of-the-empire grime à la George Grosz, from whose “degenerate” sketches this version derives. No, this Cabaret isn't brave. It's flashy, gaudy, ribald and, ultimately, trivial. When the Nazis roll in, they're like bullies crashing a party at Hef's pad.

The British, at least, can blame their excessive zeal over Mendes' staging on their collective sexual repression. These are, after all, the same people who went into blissful delirium after a peek at Nicole Kidman's bare bottom in the London production of David Hare's The Blue Room (also directed by Mendes). The New York critics, meanwhile, focused on Kidman's wooden performance — evidence of their comparative levelheadedness. So what's their excuse for Cabaret?

MANY YEARS AGO, THE IVAR THEATER IN HOLLYWOOD (now vacant after being occupied and abandoned by the Inner City Cultural Center) was a strip joint. I went there once, and the memory is indelible. The place was a dark, smoky echo chamber — not unlike the Wilshire Theater's redesign for Cabaret. Near the center of the cavernous interior was a single runway, adjacent to which sat a clump of men, their faces just about level with the floor of the stage. There were tables and chairs farther back, but not enough patrons to fill them. As dance music warbled from a warped tape, a nude woman wrapped her limbs around a customer, gyrating her spine with an expression of unmitigated fatigue. I remember another dancer arriving in a trench coat. Suddenly, that single garment was on the floor — so much for striptease — and she sat cross-legged, exposing her privates to a single, presumably generous tipper, from whom she never shifted her attention until she retrieved her coat and clumped off the stage. These women were neither svelte nor particularly sexy. The theater was a chamber of desperation, a mausoleum for souls — on and off the runway — so bereft of dignity and hope that had Nazis marched in to clean the place up, you might even have thought that it would at least be an improvement.

I'm still waiting for a version of Cabaret that will confront the Nazi within all of us. It's so easy to shudder with indignation and horror at a swastika on a soldier's arm, as we're invited to do in Mendes' Cabaret, and in all the earlier Cabarets, and in The Sound of Music and almost every World War II flick to ever come out of Hollywood. But there's a reason that millions of Germans were swept up into the Hitlerian tornado, and it's not just that they were brainwashed, or “Teutonic,” or somehow mentally or emotionally different from the rest of us. They just happened to be living at the end of the world, at a place where scapegoating is a spiritual calling. If Mendes' vision of the Kit Kat Club had approached the agony in the Ivar Theater of 1984, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” would have incited far more paradoxical and difficult feelings than mere blind contempt for the song's toxic sweetness and dire prophecy.

Now that would have been gutsy.

CABARET | Music and lyrics by JOHN KANDER and FRED EBB | Book by JOE MASTEROFF | Directed by SAM MENDES | At the Wilshire Theater | 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills | Through May 1

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