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A CurtainUp Review
by Sylvie Reice
Elyse Sommer's Second Thoughts Feature on this review
2002 Update by Elyse Soomer
Cabaret 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, bienvenue, 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.
2002 Update by Elyse Sommer
2002 Update by Elyse Sommer < size="3">Cabaret - 1000+ Performances Later
The cast has changed since this electrifying site-specific revival of Cabaret opened more than a thousand performances ago. The show moved from its first home, at the the Henry Miller to Studio 54. with its hedonistic theater-cum-Kit Kat Club setting intact. With two new actors in the key roles the show producers have in ex-Mayor Koch's "How Am I Doing?" fashion issued press invitations to give the show a state-of-the-hit appraisal. To get right to the point: You're doing just fine.
Molly Ringwald and Raùl Esparza have arrived at Studio 54-a.k.a.-the Kit Kat Club, straight from the off-Broadway musical, tick, tick. . . BOOM! — she as the 13th Sally Bowles and he as the 6th Emcee. Not having revisited the show since it opened, I can't comment on the various actors who have played Clifford Bradshaw the Frauleins Schmidt and Kost, Herr Schultz and Ernst Ludwig. What I can say is that the current production teems with talent that makes the show feel as fresh as if it were just making its debut.
Raùl Esparza is an absolutely mesmerizing Emcee. He looks and sounds somewhat more robust than Alan Cumming, yet he is as serpentine and unforgettable a presence, with a voice that establishes him as a musical star as well as a star quality actor.
Molly Ringwald is a pert Sally Bowles who no matter how earnestly she works at her British accent seems to be more firmly rooted in the Chelsea section of New York than London. While not totally convincing as the played-out, drugged-out good time girl, she does convey a nice sense of lost generation vulnerability and her singing is not one-note, gathering enough steam to bring down the house with her big "Cabaret" finale.
Larry Keith, the current Herr Schultz, is particularly outstanding, with a beautiful voice to enhance the role. Carol Shelley, unlike Mary Louise Wilson, brings a fine German accent to the role of Fraulein Schneider and her rendition of "What Would You Do?" is more bittersweet than ever. Matthew Greer is a likeable Clifford Bradshow and Candy Buckley a very strong Fraulein Kost.
The ensemble and the band, especially in the terrific "Entr'acte" at the top of the second act are in fine shape. The win-win-win combination of Kander and Ebb's dazzling musical with its perfect mix of a serious and substantial book with a rich and diverse score is indestructible. Sam Mendes' updated interpretation is more on target than ever. May this Cabaret run for a thousand and many more nights. ---Elyse Sommer, 1/16/02.
Studio 54, 254 West 54th St. (Broadway/6thAve), 239-6200.
Current Leads: Molly Ringwald, Raùl Esparza), Larry Keith, Carole Shelley, Matthew Greer, Candy Buckley, Peter Benson. (See the original review below for original cast members and song list)
Current show schedule: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday @8PM Saturday and Sunday @2PM, Sunday @7PM--. $25 - $95 ($25 rear mezzanine tickets available at box office on the day of performance; not available for Friday and Saturday evening shows. Subject to availability, four per person).
Re-reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/14/02 performance
>8/27/03 Update: Final performance November 2, 2003-- bringing performance total to 2006!Cabaret - 1000+ Performances