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Posted at 5:23 PM ET, 07/11/2009

'Cabaret CooCoo': Cigars, Cigarettes, Candy?

By Nelson Pressley

The stars of "Cabaret CooCoo." (Capital Fringe Festival)
Fringe Festival

The leggy cigarette girls are your first clue to the throwback aura of Cabaret CooCoo, a gentle exercise in vaudeville pluck by the locally based Happenstance Theater. Before the show starts, women stroll the aisles selling items you can't actually consume in the low-ceilinged auditorium at Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church (Fringe calls this venue The Mountain), while two musicians plink out cute old tunes on accordion and ukulele.

It's awfully winsome, so delicate you fear it might fall apart. By design, these yesteryear troupers barely have their act together: the headliners haven't arrived, the master of ceremonies disappears, and heck, nobody's even manning the spotlight. (When someone finally gets to it, the beam keeps hitting the wrong spot.)

Time for a wing and a prayer, right? Surely this charming band of entertainers has a little something up its collective sleeve.

Well, yes and no. Yes: the Gracie Allen quality of Sabrina Mandell as Diz Aster, who sings plaintively yet winningly with Izzy Aster (Mandell's real-life husband, Mark Jaster). The duo discovers neat opportunities for subtle slapstick in the midst of standards like "Bicycle Built for Two," and Jaster -- a gifted physical clown -- graciously cedes the spotlight to Mandell's adorably kooky persona.

The music is simple and childlike; a toy piano played by Nick Newlin suits the mood perfectly. Newlin even turns out to be a surprisingly deft juggler, if not quite ready for a big-time Cirque gig.

Less effective, though not way off the mark, is a swinging dance routine by the cigarette girls that practically blossoms into ballet. Also sketchy is the rudimentary sleight of hand by Karen Beriss, as well as the overall timing of what Happenstance intends as an endearing night of comic misfires and schlepping through.

The group had a Fringe hit last year with "Low Tide Hotel," and it's booked for a holiday show this December at Bethesda's Round House Theatre. But the members are still honing this bit of old-school stuff; performed by Happenstance, the acts are perpetually young at heart.

By Nelson Pressley  | July 11, 2009; 5:23 PM ET
Categories:  Theater  
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