A CurtainUp Prequel and Review
Review of the Re-Revival
By Elyse Sommer
Prequel Background Feature With Production Notes, Song list andPictures
Review of 1998 Production
As he reinvented this ambiguous in his sexuality and politics character that musical theater aficionados thought belonged to Joel Grey, so Cumming has reinvigorated his larger-than life multi-layered portrayal. Being older actually deepens the mordant, worn persona that makes his Emcee the show's electrifying wellspring from the moment the spotlight lights on him doing his famous "Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome" and he sheds his black leather coat to reveal the erotic, bare-chested tuxedo of his more diabolical than ingratiating clown-host. Wilkommen indeed to a frantically festive pre-World War II Berlin with the glazed eyes of the dancers symbolizing their blindness to the surge of Nazism around them.
While some critics have grumbled about this being a case of more of the same, there's nothing been-there-done-that about this production. Sure I anticipated the shattering final image, but that didn't keep me from being stunned with emotion. And, of course, there's Kander and Ebb's indestructibly dazzling mix of a serious and substantial book with a rich and diverse score. Not a single number without their sublime rhythms and incisive lyrics.
Immersive theatrical experiences like Studio 54's cabaret set-up have become more commonplace. However, it's fun to once more sit at those little tables with the red-shaded lamps flickering throughout the orchestra. And there's plenty new to be savored in the actors now playing the subsidiary roles. Though her name appears above the title, that includes Michelle Williams's Sally Bowles.
That said, unless you're locked into memories of others who memorably portrayed Sally Bowles (if you're old enough, that would include Lotte Lenya who was herself a refugee from Nazi Germany), Williams actually brings a quite fresh and valid interpretation to the jaded, fun and sex loving, apolitical Brit. Surprisingly, the actress who's made her reputation in non-musical roles, is at her best when she's singing.
It's because Cumming is so much the cynosure here and also because Linda Emond and Danny Burstein who play two of the other pivotal characters are so good that Williams's Sally doesn't come off as quite as much a star as Cumming.
Linda Emond has exhibited superb acting chops in many straight plays like Homebody/Kabul and Death of a Salesman is a revelation as the pragmatic boardinghouse keeper. Who knew she could sing as magnificently, as she does in solos like "So What" and "What Would You Do?" and her duet with Herr Schultz (the ideally cast Burstein), her Jewish but oh so German fruit merchant suitor in "It Couldn't Please Me More."
As for Sally's romantic counterpart, the bi-sexual Clifford Bradshaw's (the book's stand-in character for author Christopher Isherwood), Bill Heck is also quite fine. Like Emond, he's new to singing but does so quite creditably.
The third couple to fill in the subplot adds to the something new assets of this Cabaret: Aaron Krohn as Ernst Ludwig, the German who befriends and eventually disillusions Clifford and Gayle Ranin as Fraulein Kost. Rankin is a standout as the hard-hearted rather than gold-hearted prostitute.
The ensemble and the band are in fine shape. The doubling up of as musicians and dancers is as breathtaking as ever, especially when at the top of the second Act they all do a Rockette-like that morphs into a goose-step signifying the increasing threat of Nazism in full swing.
I don't recall Cumming breaking the fourth wall with a a second act bit of audience interaction during which he pulls a woman and then a man from their seats close to the stage and dances briefly with them. New or old, it struck me as his one misstep. But what's one misstep in two and a half hours of serious but entertaining musical theater.
The music and story can stand up even in scaled down regional productions with unknown actors. This was the case with Julianne Boyd's Cabaret which had New York musical aficionados riding up to the Berkshires ( my review).
But there's something special to have a Tony Award-winning production return to the scene of its original triumph, with the same director and original Emcee aboard. And that's exactly what's happening at Studio 54.
I can't wait to see Alan Cumming back in bow tie, suspenders and bare chest. Cummings, who's become my favorite introducer for Public Broadcasting's mystery series and also endeared himself with The Good Wife fans as the Illinois political operative Ely Gold, was a mesmerizing Emcee. But it's been sixteen years so it will be quite a leap for the distinguished looking Ely with his hair turning gray at the temples to get back into that androgynous role. My bet is that he'll not only do it, but being more mature, will bring something new and special to this reprise.
The actors in the other key roles— Danny Burstein as Herr Schultz, Linda Emond as Freulein Schneider and Bill Heck as Cliff Bradshaw— all promise to be more than "wilkommen" additions.
Until I catch up with the current production and post my review , here some pictures, production notes — and a link to Curtainup's review with song list of Sam Mendes's edgy take when it first played at Studio 54, and a follow-up with a new cast in 2002. review