BWW Reviews: A Princely Revival of CABARET
Producer/director Harold Prince knew he was playing with shocking stuff when he recruited Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) to script his concept of John Van Druten's I Am a Camera, a play based on Christopher Isherwood's short novel, Goodbye To Berlin, into a Broadway musical.
It wasn't the delicious decadence of their depiction of the final days of sexually and artistically liberated Weimar Germany that disturbed audiences so, but the mirror he had set designer Boris Aronson place on stage to reflect the faces of the customers. Cabaret arrived on Broadway in 1966, and Prince was clearly drawing parallels between the fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany and the violent reaction to the civil rights movement in America.
Sex, strictly of the heterosexual variety, was only strongly hinted at in that original production; telling the story of straight American novelist Cliff Bradshaw seeking inspiration in the town caught up in a seemingly never-ending party. When Prince's original production was brought back to Broadway in 1987, the character's sexuality was more ambiguous, though pretty much closeted.
There is little ambiguity, sexual or otherwise, in Roundabout Theater Company's return engagement of Cabaret. This production, conceived by British director Sam Mendes, originated in London's Donmar Warehouse in 1993 and, with Rob Marshall joining as co-director and choreographer, spent nearly six years on Broadway after arriving in '98.
Despite some cuts and additions ("Maybe This Time" and "Mein Heir" in, "Meeskite" and "Why Should I Wake Up?" out) the wild party now inhabiting Studio 54 never strays substantially far from Masteroff's original book, but it's Mendes' interpretation of the antics taking place on stage at the show's Kit Kat Klub that make this production so effective and exciting.
Gone is the cold Brechtian detachment of Prince's night spot, where song and dance performances took place in a kind of limbo. Most of the audience is now seated at cocktail tables, where they can enjoy drinks and snacks. The painted puppet of Joel Grey's Emcee is replaced by Alan Cumming's bacchanalian ringmaster. Underdressed and oversexed with a borscht belt sense of debauchery ("Do you feel good? I bet you do."), he welcomes us to join his orgy, filled with buff boys looking for action and dancing girls looking for a few marks.
Cumming embraces us warmly with his sexual openness and for a few hours we are part of the subversive artistic culture of underground Berlin. So when we start to sense the infiltration of the Nazis, it gets personal. The production's disturbing ending, an evocative idea played to perfection by Cumming, kicks us back into unforgiving reality.
Bill Heck's excellent Cliff - very actively bisexual - arrives in town with a lusty, frat-boy attitude, but grows up quickly once he senses where Germany is heading. His transition is so well played that it tends to overshadow the performance of Michelle Williams, whose underwhelming Sally Bowles lacks the kind of color or interesting nuances that would inspire a novelist to write about her.
Linda Emond and Danny Burstein add heartwarming and heartbreaking moments as the pragmatic landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and her kind and romantic suitor, Jewish fruit shop owner, Herr Schultz. Fine work is also done by Aaron Krohn, whose Ernst is a charming fellow who rather innocently can't understand Cliff's objection to the Nazi party.
Cabaret has always been a musical theatre masterpiece; daring and incisive, with an exceptional score that vividly colors its memorable characters. This imaginative revival brings out its daring nature all the more.