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Memphis Flyer Big Stilettos to Fill

Jon Peterson puts his own twist to Cabaret's twisted Emcee.

By Ashley Fantz

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  What good is sitting alone in your room — doing your taxes?

"But duty calls," says Jon Peterson, the Emcee of the touring company of the musical "Cabaret." "I might call an accountant with this. I'm too exhausted to do numbers. Interviews are the best way to get out of it for a while."

It's difficult to imagine the famously scary and sassy Emcee hunched over W2s, white shirt open, red lips pursed, his bow tie dangling askew on a bare, skinny neck. Peterson, a longtime English stage actor and dancer, says he leaves the role on stage.

"It would be easy for me to continue being the Emcee after the show is over every night," he says. "It's certainly an emotional role to play and you get attached to that. I have to find that middle between playful fun and being really evil, really threatening. I have to be both androgynous but also threatening as an overly sexually charged man. He's the devil, Father Time, God. What choice do I have but to go back to being a regular person when I'm not him?"

Reprised on Broadway two years ago, the John Kander and Fred Ebb production about Berlin nightspot The Kit Kat Club on the eve of Nazi reign gave Great White Way actor Alan Cummings mainstream fame and earned Natasha Richardson a Tony for her performance as songstress Sally Bowles.

In the touring group, Joely Fisher of TV's "Ellen" plays Bowles. Both Fisher and Peterson have big stilettos to fill. For Peterson, who looks very similar to the gangly Cummings, it would be easy to interpret the Emcee as he's usually played -- with tarty ebullience.

"I'm not interested in doing Alan Cummings doing the Emcee. I've given the character his own history," Peterson says. "Apart from that personal history, though he's also a symbol of 1930s culture that was gradually dying; he's one of the last desperate creatures trying pointlessly to keep it alive."

Throughout much of the show, the Emcee takes on an omnipotent role watching and introducing scenes. A haven for misfits, the Kit Kat Club is one of the few places to escape Germany's war on art. It's a perfect world for the Emcee who's the embodiment of modernism and free thought. "Life is disappointing," he says in a lively, raunchy opening scene. "Forget about it. In here, everything is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful."

Peterson used his dance experience to guide him through solo numbers such as "Money" -- a song with overlapping lyrics and double- and triple-time rhythms. Most remember the Academy Award-winning film version with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in which both performers sang the satirical song about greed. Until American Beauty director Sam Mendes revived Cabaret in 1998, the song was traditionally performed by Bowles and the Emcee.

"We don't want to give away anything," says Peterson, "but the show will have lots of little treats. There's something really powerful about the way we were all directed. And I think Joely and I played off each other; we energized each other."

Peterson's long-time dance training at the London Royal Ballet and his recurrent portrayal of Skimbleshanks in "Cats" helped him athleticize the role of the Emcee. He drew from another experience that Cummings can't claim -- a slew of '80s rock and dance videos. The one that should have made him a star? Duran Duran's "Wild Boys."

"That was such an out-of-control, animalistic video," he says. "We slithered around on the floor and just got nasty. With the make-up and the costumes, it was quite a bit of fun. I drew on those creatures to give the Emcee his seductive, menacing qualities. Because you really have to make people think I could kill just as easily as I could kiss them."

That's pretty rebellious stuff for a guy who's willing to do his own taxes.

"I think I'm going to go ahead and call that accountant," he says.

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