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Cabaret - Second Thoughts

Since I saw director Julianne Boyd's updated, highly praised and successful revival of Cabaret in the Berkshires last summer, I thought it best to let someone without such a recent experience with the show do the main review. Sylvie Reice, an erstwhile critic for the New York News-Chicago Tribune Syndicate, proved a perfect choice since she brought first-hand knowledge not just of the movie and most 1987 revival but the original with the unforgettable Lotte Lenya.

I agree with her appraisal (based on the last preview before the official opening) that the current Cabaret is a triumph. This Second Thoughts #5 is therefore not a second review but a miscellany of addendums — some trivia, some additional comments, some points of disagreement.

S. precedes excerpts from Sylvie Reice's review. Text preceded by ES will give my take on that excerpt . For the full review, click here.

SR --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 . . .
ES-- The original Sally, Jill Haworth sang more like a show biz hopeful than a drop-dead, top drawer entertainer. However, she was replaced by a more typically smooth singer, Anita Gillette. (Broadway not quite ready for an actor-more-than-singer-driven musical and visionary directors to follow through on their vision?).

SR -- The version had been "ground-breaking"
ES-- The issue of abortion was as ground-breaking as the anti-Semitism

SR --The orchestra and mezzanine are gussied up with cabaret-style chairs and tables lit by small red-shaded lamps.
ES-- Those little lamps are wired into the main light system so that they go dim right along with the house lights.

SR -- Before show-time, as waiters take drink orders, musicians tune up, making a cacophonous din,
ES-- Caveat Emptor! Those drinks are not priced c. 1929. Even a bagel will set you back over $7. And if you listen carefully to that "cacophonous din" you'll catch the strains of "Deutschland, Deutschland, Über Alles." If you watch closely, you'll also notice many other easily overlooked signs symbolizing the decadence and evil lurking everywhere -- like the bruises on one of the chorus girls and the Emcee slinking along the upper catwalks.

SR -- In the background, a chorus led by Fraulein Kost, sings "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", a hymn to the "fatherland"
ES-- And one of the show's triumphs for a featured player -- Michelle Pawk. Outstanding!

SR -- Natasha Richardson projects a quixotic bohemianism although she seems too healthy and pink-cheeked for someone so dissipated.
ES-- True, but this only underscores how much deeper she's sunk into the abyss when we see her with black-ringed eyes and chalk-white face towards the end of the show.

SR -- (a peccadillo, perhaps--why does she (Mary Louise Wilson) play the only German character in the play without a German accent?
ES-- This " peccadillo" bothered me more than a little — especially when you consider how nice it is to have a Sally Bowles who is and sounds so English. And a little pecadillo of my own. If we're sophisticated enough to accept an openly bi-sexual Clifford why the clanging cymbals when he kisses another man — to make sure that we're just a little shocked after all, the way canned laughter is supposed to make us laugh?

SR -- Special plaudits must go to Alan Cumming for his dark and complex portrayal of the Emcee.
ES-- Cummings' portrayal defies description. It must truly be seen to be believed. Like Natasha Richardson, (and Ron Rifkin and Mary Louise Wilson) he's more an actor than a musical powerhouse) which, but then this is a play which happens to be musicalized with some of the best songs and lyrics to come down the musical pike.

SR -- 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 ES-- This is my one major disagreement with Sylvie. I like a touch of glitz as much as the next person, but not only is Chicago (see link at end ) continuing to sell out with more glitz in the bodies than the costumes being worn -- but more importantly, I do think the costumes are terrifically apt. For one thing, the look is very much a 90s street-smart without losing the historic sense of time and place (I saw this work equally well just a few days before I saw Cabaret in a gem of a small musical at the Raw Space, The Good Woman -- see link at the end ). For another, the black slips and berets worn in one scene evoked eerie visions of Hitler's black uniformed S.A. troops -- it was almost as if these elite storm troopers were kicking up their heels to show us they'd soon put all these hedonists in their place.

SR -- 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. ES-- "Money"" (and also ""Maybe This Time") were not in the original (1966) production. The anti-Semitic last line of `"If You Could See Her,"appeared in the 1987 (And Julienne Boyd directed version) but was cut from the 1966 show. Also in `"Two Women" the Emcee now replaces one of the women, dressed in drag. Very cleverly done.

SR -- Congratulations, too, to Robert Brill, the set and club designer ES-- Seconded! The man's name is surely an abbreviated eponym for brilliance.

To windup with a brief comment about the Cabaret mentioned in my introductory paragraph and which I saw at Barrington Stage where its director Julienne Boyd is artistic director: That production was a fine step towards giving audiences the kind of Cabaret that speaks more truthfully to our times. Since Barrington Stage is a young company with very limited financial resources and a mission to make its productions available to family audiences — there was no way Ms. Boyd could create a site-specific atmosphere like this or hire this large a cast or orchestra. The setting, as for all Barrington Stage production was a large high school auditorium, (and when it moved to Boston, the Hasty Pudding Club) and the only New York cast members were Marni Nixon and Spiros Malas as Freulein Schneider and Herr Schmidt. And yet it worked! It wasn't as raw and raunchy and completely electrifying as this not-for-kids production, but it also didn't downplay the anti-Semitism and deserved the praises heaped on it. Above all it proved, as does Sam Mendes' production, that Cabaret, like any musical classic, has the story and musical power to change and mature.

Cabaret Review by Sylvie Reice
Cabaret Review Summer 1997
©Copyright March 24, 1998, Elyse Sommer,
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