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A CurtainUp Review
---Our Original Kit Kat Club Review- by Sylvie ReiceCabaret which opened on Broadway in 1966 won eight Tony awards. With Hal Prince directing, a cast that included Joel Grey, Lotte Lenya and Jack Guilford, and the lyrics and music of Kander and Ebb, it came in a winner, playing all over the country and world-wide and joining the lexicon of musical classics. The '72 film by Bob Fosse won a slew of Oscars and made Liza Minelli a super-star.
Then, surprise, a 1987 revival of the sure-thing musical met a lukewarm reception, Joel Grey notwithstanding.What happened? And in light of it, why the present revival?
What happened was that in the 21-year-interval between the two Broadway productions, we had changed, but the Cabaret production had not. Though the musical's score still packed a wallop, its setting and sub-text were topical, and by '87, we knew a lot more about the Nazi terrorism that the musical hinted at. Theater must speak to the times. The '66 version had been ground-breaking; the '87 Cabaret was tame. In a similar, though reverse situation, Kander and Ebb's amoral Chicago (see link at end to our review) didn't speak to the audience when it opened in 1975, but it is top ticket with today's sophisticated audiences. Our present climate is even more seismically changed from that of '87. The full horrors of Nazism (and Bosnia) have been revealed, atrocities around the globe flicker on our TV screens, corruption and depravity are ubiquitous. Can anything shock us again?
Recognizing these facts, Sam Mendes, who has made a name in England as an eclectic director, has created a dark, daring, visionary play emphasizing the decadence of Weimar Germany's netherworld. This is a no-holds barred production--sexually and politically explicit. The triumph is that, despite this shift in emphasis, it is no polemic, but energetically musical and entertaining. Its memorable score is, if anything, enhanced by the play's greater substance.
Mendes got the idea for the acclaimed English production from which the Roundabout version is adapted while sitting in a club, which he saw as a physical metaphor for Germany. As he put it: —"In the early '30's, we were in a club, having a great time. By mid '30's, the door was being locked from the outside, and by '39, you couldn't get out. And you, the audience are not an observer. You're part of it. You're there."
To achieve immediacy, the present Cabaret literally takes place in a club --the former Club Expo on West 43rd Street (once the Henry Miller Theater.) Its large down-at-the-heels premises were redone just enough to express the seedy glamour of Berlin's Kit Kat Klub where much of the musical's action takes place. The orchestra and mezzanine are gussied up with cabaret-style chairs and tables lit by small red-shaded lamps. Elsewhere, the black walls are flaking and reflections of the audience and performers waver tantalizingly in the half-tarnished decorative mirrors. (In the original stage designer Boris Aronson used a large distorting mirror onstage in which the audience saw themselves). Before show-time, as waiters take drink orders, musicians tune up, making a cacophonous din, and some dancers in shabby kimonos limber up on the empty stage. It's strange, other-worldly.
But when the show begins, and the spotlight hits the Kit Kat Klub Emcee (Alan Cumming) doing his famous "Willkommen, beinvenue, welcome", number, you get your first jolt of reality. This black leather coated Emcee is no decadent-but-winning clown, but ominously knowing, diabolically ingratiating and androgynous. He sheds his coat, revealing a burlesque of a tuxedo--white sleeveless undershirt and black pants--with suspenders strapped suggestively around his crotch. The Kit Kat Girls who double as dancers and musicians, (surely a triumph of casting!), wear flimsy costumes resembling lingerie and black stockings with runs in them. Their dancing is frankly erotic--a few steps interspersed with lewd gestures. Of course, they play to you, their audience. Impoverished wicked Berlin is in-your-face.You're part of the clapping Kit Kat Klub audience, their eyes blind to the growing menace of Nazism. Willkommen.
From this "prologue" we segue into the story line. Clifford Bradshaw, (John Benjamin Hickey) an American novelist celebrating New Year's Eve at the Kit Kat Klub is spotted by Sally Bowles, (Natasha Richardson) lead singer and Klub denizen. She telephones his table from hers. Their phone chat leads to her moving in with him, uninvited, and to their love affair. When Sally becomes pregnant, Cliff (who in this production is openly bisexual) asks her to marry him, but Sally is not overjoyed about going to America with him.
The sub-plot centers on a relationship between Frau Schneider (Mary Louise Wilson), who runs the rooming-house where Cliff lives and a Jewish grocer, Herr Schultz, (Ron Rifkin.) At the Schneider-Schultz engagement party, Fraulein Kost, a lodger who Schneider has constantly reviled for bringing sailors to her room, takes revenge by telling Ernst Ludwig, a guest at the party, that Schultz is a Jew. (Cliff has been "innocently" smuggling cash for Ludwig, unaware that he's a Nazi). Ludwig takes Schneider aside and explains that it would not be to her advantage to marry a Jew. In the background, a chorus led by Fraulein Kost, sings "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", a hymn to the "fatherland" with the Emcee seen in the background, giving the Nazi salute. He is, in fact, almost always in the background--a hovering evil presence, a symbol of the doomed and depraved times.
In the second, powerful act, the Kit Kat Klub dancers (among them the Emcee) all in short black dresses perform a Rockette-like precision dance which ends with a goose-step. Nazism is in full swing, and a brick is thrown through the window of Herr Schultz's store, bringing relationships to an unhappy climax.
From then on, we witness how Nazism corrodes people's values and affects their destinies. There is no resolution, only our own knowledge of what happened in Germany. In a reprise of his opening "welcome" number, the Emee has the last word, so to speak, before the shocking and unforgettable visual climax of this production.
As Sally Bowles, Natasha Richardson projects a quixotic bohemianism although she seems too healthy and pink-cheeked for someone so dissipated. Her dancing is clunky but she does belt out the songs adequately. Though for a few moments at the end, she seems to project some small pathetic insight into her self-destruction I can't say Richardson's performance throws any light on a character whose motivations have always been a mystery. But then a charming bohemian whore is unreal to start, unless she truly believes that "life is a cabaret".
Ron Rifkin was up to snuff, making his small role touching and memorable and singing in a surprisingly good voice. Mary Louise Wilson, sang in a pleasantly robust alto that suits the character, although I missed the poignancy that Lotte Lenya brought to the role. Wilson exudes a hardness, even in the love scenes with Schultz, but perhaps this was deliberately in keeping with the musical's grittier tone. (Also--a peccadillo, perhaps--why does she play the only German character in the play without a German accent?) John Benjamin Hickey brings the requisite intelligence and American persona to the role of Cliff.
Special plaudits must go to Alan Cumming for his dark and complex portrayal of the Emcee. He reinvents the clown/Emcee, brilliantly projecting ambiguous sexuality and politics. (Would anyone have believed it possible after Joel Grey?) And his hovering, larger-than-life multi-layered performance serves, in large part, as the mainspring of the new revival.
As for the dancing of the Kit Kat Klub girls —Their numbers in the first act were all similar, and coming three in a row, they seemed repetitious. Surely, there are variations even on provocative dancing! The second-act goose-stepping take-off was a welcome and original change. While I'm quibbling, the dancers' and Sally Bowles costumes were too tacky even though this was obvious done to project the era's poverty, and to differentiate this Cabaret from previous productions with their super-glitzy costumes (which, incidentally won a Tony). Still, a cabaret is a cabaret, not a beggars' opera, and a touch of glitz would not have been out of place.
Kander and Ebb are of course national gems and their songs -- "Money", "Married" and "Come To The Cabaret", etc.-- serve as ironic commentaries on the Weimar times, and the stomping cabaret tunes and wistful love songs with their cynical wisdom will always live. One of the highlights of the evening is the Entr'acte jam session in which the full Kit Kat Band belts out the musical's signature numbers. The effect is heightened by colored spotlights sweeping over them — a credit to how lighting designers Peggy Eisenhauer and Max Baldassari add throughout to the hedonistic atmosphere of the cabaret and to the play's darker sub-text. In one particularly beautiful and touching moment lights sparkle overhead and around the whole theater/cabaret. Congratulations, too, to Robert Brill, the set and club designer for that marvelously generic "furnished" room in Frau Schneider's boarding house, and, of course, for recreating the Kit Kat Klub!
Sam Mendes has said that he "s;significantly rethought the New York versions of Cabaret and that he was far less concerned with providing value-for-money-spent on Broadway-type big production numbers "that don't say anything." He certainly has a lot to say in this production and says it powerfully.
LINKS OF INTEREST
Elyse Sommer's Second Thoughts Feature on this review
For a review of a different and also popular revival that moved from Barrington Stage in the Berkshires to Boston Click Here
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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