BWW Review: Starkly Dark and Raw Revival of CABARET Returns Decadently to the Pantages

Cabaret/book by Joe Masteroff,/based on the play by John Van Druten and the stories of Christopher Isherwood/music by John Kander; lyrics by Fred Ebb/directed by BT McNicholl/originally directed by Sam Mendes/originally choreographed by Rob Marshall/choreography recreated by Cynthia Onrubia/Pantages/through August 7 only

Perhaps Kander and Ebb's best musical, apart from Chicago, Cabaret has it all: a fine book, deliciously diverse characters, dynamite music and a subtext that will not quit. The subtext being: either compromise or get out if you value your life, the latter, to be sure, the wiser. This is Berlin, circa 1929/30, before Hitler, just as Nazi pressure hits the fan. Now a national tour based on Roundabout Theatre's 2014 revival docks at the Pantages for a mere 3 weeks with a glorious cast headed by Randy Harrison in a big, broad and devilishly fun performance as the Emcee.

Whereas the 1972 Bob Fosse film was more tailor-made for Liza Minnelli's star power, one realizes upon revisiting the play that it is definitely more of an ensemble piece with the urgent participation of every single chorus member. After all they populate the Kit Kat Klub, lending it an uncannily vibrant as well as somber diversity. Following closely in this vein are the leading players Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss) and Cliff Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen), whose character is based on writer Christopher Isherwood. Like day and night, they also set the tone for the entire show. The emcee is a stage manager: setting microphones, playing a patriotic disc on a record player, or even throwing a brick through Herr Schultz's Fruit Market window. This stage manager plays a number of tricky disguises; like a chameleon, he's in and out deviously, prodding and pushing, and playing... both sides, keeping us guessing. Then there are those unquestionably trapped like Frau Schneider (Shannon Cochran) and Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson), who cannot express their love for one another without paying the price. The question of homosexuality, which had hovered with a couple of chorus members making a play for the bisexual Bradshaw in the original 60s production, changed drastically in the 1998-2004 Roundabout production, upon which this is based. Cliff confesses his bisexuality here, but the tragedy of the gay issue in Nazi Germany is explored much more fully and deeply in Martin Sherman's play Bent. In this Cabaret, there is a single glance at the prison uniform that minorities will wear in the camps with both star and pink triangle, symbolizing Jew and homosexual.This we see when the emcee tears off his leather coat and turns to the audience in the finale, the uniform in full view ... a sad omen of Berlin's upcoming Nazi conquest.

The acting is top notch with Harrison a powerful emcee. From his opening "Willkommen" to "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" to "If You Could See Her" to the pitiful "I Don't Care Much" wearing feminine sequins and jewels, he grabs our attention fully and delivers a bold, brassy statement of demoralization. He is omnipresent looking on at all the scenes from the orchestra on a platform above the main set, or on one of the spiral metal staircases at stage left and right of the band. He is the narrator, the observer and looks on with disdain or indifference, as the case may be. One great example of his intruding participation is sneering at the joy and love expressed between Schneider and Schultz as he holds the cherished pineapple, a temptation between them in "It Couldn't Please Me More". Goss as Sally has a lovely belting singing voice and plays the hell out of Sally's misery and elusive behavior, making her an obvious tragic heroine. However, I was not seduced by any flirtatiousness or sophistication; I found the performance to be on one note ... and my concern for her and Cliff lacked real feeling. It's hardly Rosen's fault. He is vulnerable and earnest as Bradshaw, so it is Goss who does not make enough of a connection. Cochran makes a strong Frau Schneider, so in tune with the woman's emotional longings but resigned to pushing them aside. Also of note is Nelson, who brings a natural gentlemanly quality to Herr Schultz, as well as desperation at losing his chance to marry. Kudos as well to Alison Ewing as Fraulein Kost in a vivid portrait of divine decadence. As noted in the program, she is understudy for Sally Bowles; I would prefer to see her in the role. But, the entire ensemble is wonderful, under the baton of McNicholl who directs with a fluid, steady pace, and with Onrubia offering some slick choreography. Robert Cookman provides terrific musical direction with his fabulously talented Kit Kat Band center stage, like a family unit all subject to the same pain and tragedy as the main personae.

This Cabaret is hardly traditional. so those who expect to see it as it was first presented on Broadway with Joel Grey will be disappointed. This is an intensely dark and sexually raw interpretation of the the piece. Emcee keeps himself undressed as much as possible and many sexual positions are mimed throughout. Sexual abandon is part of the party as these desperate souls look to a bleak future with no hope.

Bravo to this new national tour of Cabaret for a job well done! This is a finely staged piece with a genuinely 'ensemble' texture to it. You may walk away saddened and dismayed, but this is a true depiction of Berlin in 1930. The tawdry ambiance, the big picture of total devastation looms large throughout with special nod to Robert Brill for his dark scenic design, William Ivey Long for his scant, decadent costuming and to Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari for their bold lighting design that casts mostly shadows and only flashing bright light at the end to symbolize electrocution and death.

Once again thank you to Randy Harrison for a fully focused and mesmerizing turn as the emcee, a real prophet of doom.

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From This Author Don Grigware