BWW Review: Roundhouse CABARET Packs An Outsized Wallop

The Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Cabaret, perched this week at the Hippodrome, adds a new layer to the strata of revision the work has been through since it premiered in 1998. As the work has evolved through multiple revivals and a hit movie, there have been differing approaches to its explicitness about Jewishness and anti-Semitism and homosexuality and closetedness, and there have been very different takes on how to present the leads, the Emcee and Sally Bowles. A standard of bleakness and explicitness was set by the Roundabout 1998 revival, under Sam Mendes' direction (though I'm informed Mendes was working largely off a pattern he established in an earlier British version), and the current production is a road show revival (updated by director BT McNicholl) of a 2014 Broadway revival of the Mendes 1998 revival.

You can ignore all that history if you want, and focus on this: If you haven't seen a Mendes-inspired revival, you do not want to miss this edition. This Sally (Andrea Goss) is definitely British, definitely a waif and of limited talent, and has her eyes wide open to the hell her generation of revelers is headed toward in a handcart. What she has seen terrifies her. Her biggest number, Cabaret, delivered right before the end, is nothing like the Liza Minelli movie rendition that most of us probably hear in our minds whenever we think of the song. Instead of an explosion of Broadway razzamatazz, this is delivered as nearly a de profundis, a wail of a trauma victim.

This Emcee (Randy Harrison), baby-faced compared to his great predecessors Joel Grey and Alec Cumming, certainly seems more cheerful than Sally. He is preoccupied with his nightly task of dispensing artificial cordiality and artificial disclosure of his polymorphous proclivities and lifestyle, even though he remains unknowable below that surface. In that unknown area, he might conceivably be more conscious of his larger surroundings. Whatever may be concealed, he is openly bisexual and Jewish in the Berlin of the 1930s, meaning he ought to understand that he and his ilk are headed right for the gas chambers. And maybe he does; the staging of the reprise of Tomorrow Belongs to Me in which he joins suggests that in some way he grasps the existential threat that the rising Nazis pose to the likes of him. But mostly he seems as heedless as does Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson), the aging fruiterer who wrongly believes his Germanness and his decency will shield him against being persecuted and then exterminated because he is Jewish.

We know that the only way for people like the Emcee and Herr Schultz to escape the Nazi tidal wave is to move to high ground, Britain or America, but only those lucky enough to possess the correct passports, like our point-of-view character, the American Clifford (Lee Aaron Rosen), will be able to do that. Most of the characters are in history's crosshairs, and there isn't a damn thing they can do about it. Perhaps, the show can be interpreted to suggest, given that helplessness, obliviousness is the best response.

There's always an interesting object lesson in this musical concerning obliviousness to the tides of history. Sometimes events conspire to make that lesson more pointed, and now is an instance of such times. There is a reference to elections that may change things, including among the parties that might prevail in those elections "democratic socialists" (which drew a laugh); the musical also conjures up a time when politicians who wanted to restore the country's former glories surrounded themselves with toughs who would beat up or persecute those from groups they found undesirable and not truly members of the national family. Without suggesting that there are exact parallels here, there is something evocative to consider in all of this.

It may be that it is exactly because our society cannot entirely escape some of the same tendencies that curdled the Germany of that era that Brecht and Weill, the premier theatrical creators of that era, never lose interest for us. And this musical is squarely in their tradition. John Kander's music owes a great deal to Weill, and Fred Ebb's lyrics are simply Brechtian. Yet Brecht and Weill were so very heterosexual in their lives and focuses they could not have created this musical.

Kander's score, with Michael Gibson's orchestrations, particularly shines here because many of the performers actually play instruments with the band, when they are not singing and dancing. It used to be that a performer was described as a triple threat when he/she could sing, dance, and act. Now, especially since the revival of Company in 2006, ability to play an instrument seems to be added to the requirements. This cast absolutely rocks out with its Entr' Acte, pictured above, particularly Dani Spieler (Lulu), who also shows us a thing or two with the sax.

The first act has been written a little slow. That hasn't changed. But the revised show packs an outsized wallop by and at the end, even if we remember in general terms what is coming. We may have gotten much less shockable in some ways over the years, and the sexual decadence may come to seem a bit vieux jeux, but there are things like the last line of If You Could See Her, and the gas chamber moment before the final lights out that nothing can rob of their visceral power.

Not to be missed.

Cabaret, Book by Joe Masteroff, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, directed by BT McNicholl, based on original direction by Sam Mendes, through May 1, at the Hippodrome Theatre, the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets initially priced $42.00-$142.00, via Ticketmaster. Strong sexual themes, mimed sexual acts, violence, smoking, drinking. Not suitable for children.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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From This Author Jack L. B. Gohn